As the oil industry sets its sights on oil locked in shale or tar sands, environmentalists and conservationists are paying more attention to operations like sands mining in Alberta, Canada, where the impact is comparable to what decades of mining have done to the east side of the Oquirrh Mountains in the Salt Lake Valley.
Utah has renewed its love affair with at least the idea of going after vast amounts of oil shale and tar sands. So, a big part of the discussions have become how it can be done here in an environmentally friendly way.
Some firms like Orem-based EnShale Inc. and its parent company, Bullion Monarch Mining, are confident they've got the environmental part down pat as they continue to develop a patent-pending technology to extract oil from shale.
"We're trying to be very, very green as green as we can be," said R. Don Morris, president of Bullion Monarch.
He and EnShale president Rex Franson have their eyes on 667 million barrels of oil just under 4,500 acres of state land for which they already have leases. Depending on the nature of a future leasing program, they may someday go after federal land in pursuit of more shale oil.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne recently announced the Bureau of Land Management's publication of its "rules of the road," proposed regulations that private investors will look at while deciding whether to dig and drill in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
Those three states, which share a 16,000-square-mile formation estimated to hold up to 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, hold
the most promise of higher yields of a commercially viable product. The Interior Department's proposed lower royalty rates for interested investors are meant to lessen the blow of start-up costs.
But at what price to Utah's landscape?
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he's seen the pictures from sands operations north of the border. Hatch said the oil industry will reclaim sites like those once they're through.
On a day recently when Hatch stood at the state Capitol in a meeting with oil industry officials to tout going after shale and sands in Utah, he said in an interview afterward that he has not personally been to Alberta to see what's happening there.
People like Hatch and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, tout energy independence and lower gas prices as reasons for going after shale and sands, even though the impact at the pump wouldn't be felt until sometime after larger-scale commercial production could get going in about 2016.
But will swaths of the Beehive State end up looking like parts of Alberta and, if so, for how long?
"I haven't read anything to assure me that the technology exists to do it in an environmentally friendly manner that won't leave a mess," said Pam Miller, director of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition.
Miller describes herself as an archaeologist who is concerned about nonrenewable cultural resources, like the ancient rock art found in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon. "I don't consider myself an environmentalist," she said.
Miller said that Hatch and Bennett make it sound like going after oil in shale and sands is a "do or die" thing. "These alarmists say we have to do it right now," she said.
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's Stephen Bloch isn't ready for the "right now" approach, with questions about the impact on Utah's environment still in the balance.
"I don't think we know the answer to that yet," Bloch said. "These companies have leases and they have opportunities to show the public and investors that they can develop shale in an environmentally responsible manner and in a way that's economically feasible. We haven't seen that to date."
There are still too many unanswered questions, he said, about what the lasting footprint of shale and sands development will be and what impact it will have on water quality in the affected areas and air quality for Utah as a whole.
Utah Division of Air Quality director Cheryl Heying has been watching what's happening with research and development projects for shale and sands in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
"We want to make sure there's not a race to the bottom," Heying said. That is, the race to Utah's oil reserves that, in some areas, can actually be seen sitting on the surface.
She describes the areas of eastern Utah where the reserves are located as clean. "And we want to keep it clean," Heying added.
She believes the Bureau of Land Management and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, both players in deciding where, when and how to go after some of the oil, are taking the same approach as her office.
"The key to all of this is trying to make sure you minimize any air-quality impact," Heying said. So far, she added, all of the players, including industry, have been cooperating in terms of how to handle environmental issues. "I think there's always going to be the concerns."
Franson said his company has a patent-pending method of oil extraction for shale that uses far less water he's talking mere gallons than the three barrels of water per one barrel of oil experts have predicted would be needed during the heating process to separate the oil from rock.
For proprietary reasons, he isn't specific about the technology being developed by EnShale, but he said his company can produce crude from shale at a cost of $30 a barrel. A technology some like, which EnShale is not using, involves heating the oil while it's in the ground and extracting it that way.
Rather, the ore his company will be mining will come from underground mines, with only a little surface mining required during research and development. The process involves heating the shale to about 1,000 degrees, using a "closed-loop" system that recycles water. The spent shale after processing could go back underground or in huge trenches left behind by gilsonite mining operations, he said. And air quality has been a priority.
"We've been very careful to minimize emissions," Franson said.
He quotes Hatch's claims that greenhouse gas emissions from shale operations is small compared to production of some biofuels, including ethanol.
Franson knows there's no convincing some that his company can do it, let alone in a manner that's easy on the environment.
Case in point.
"Neither tar sands nor oil shale is the solution to our problems," said Sierra Club's Mark Clemens. "Shale oil is crap it's worse than crap."
Translation: It's difficult and costly to get a final usable product from shale, and in the end it is "worthless" in Clemens' eyes. Worse, the process to turn shale oil into something desirable will be too polluting for air and water. "There's not even a dirty way of extracting oil from shale that's economically viable," he added. If so, Clemens said, Exxon would have done it back in the 1980s.
"It's always the next big thing," he said about renewed interest in shale and sands. Clemens singled out the recent meeting at the Capitol. "This is just another political charade being put on by our congressional delegation with no substance behind it."Small oil companies say they can get commercial barrels of oil rolling out about as soon as they can get leases on federal land, which isn't happening right now because of a moratorium on leasing those areas for oil development. Hatch and Bennett want to change that, the sooner the better.