MOAB, UTAH—To the ancient Indians who roamed the Colorado Plateau in what is now eastern Utah, the black globs of sticky, smelly bitumen they picked up from the sandy soil mystified them so much they called the strange substance "rocks that burn."
Today, the bitumen that fascinated the Indians for its mysterious quality of combustion is the focal point of a battle over whether bitumen—a thick, tarry substance also known as tar sands oil—should be mined in Utah, which harbors the nation's largest oil sands deposits.
According to the Utah Geological Survey, about 25 billion barrels of bitumen are buried on state and federal land. If every drop of that oil was extracted, it would supply all the nation's current oil needs for a little more than three years.
Utah regulators already have issued permits to an up-start Canadian energy development company that hopes to mine nearly 6,000 acres. The Calgary-based company, U.S. Oil Sands Inc., has scooped open a two-acre test pit in its first step toward full-scale production. If it keeps to its timetable, the nation's first sizeable oil sands mine will be operating in this largely unspoiled wilderness by early 2014.
But even as U.S. Oil Sands is finalizing its plans and calling its operation "shovel ready," two environmental organizations have stepped up their efforts to keep oil sands mining out of Utah. They say that ripping open the land for bitumen is an imprudent and desperate attempt to slake the national thirst for oil—and that it threatens what little water there is in a vast yet delicate ecosystem. According to a letter written by the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, "It is expected that the mine will use 116 gallons of water per minute on a 24-hour basis."
"This is the time and place to stop it, stop the needless assault on our wilderness," said John Weisheit, a river guide who for the last decade has been the conservation director of Living Rivers, a Moab-based environmental organization.
Click here to view a slideshow of the U.S. Oil Sands test pit in eastern Utah
Living Rivers has joined with Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law and policy organization, to appeal U.S. Oil Sands' mining permit. An administrative law judge in Salt Lake City is expected to rule soon on their argument that state regulators ignored threats to ground water when they granted the permit.
In a preface to a 2010 report on tar sands and oil shale, Western Resource Advocates President Karin P. Sheldon said oil sands mining offers too little energy in exchange for the water consumption and environmental destruction and expense it requires. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, at least 4,000 pounds of earth will be dug up for every 20 gallons of gasoline made from oil sands.
U.S. Oil Sands estimates that as much as two barrels of water will be used for each of the 2,000 barrels of bitumen it expects to produce each day. (Converted into gallons, that means the company needs as much as 168,000 gallons of water to produce 84,000 gallons of bitumen.) Company officials say 85 percent of the water will be recycled, with the remainder lost to evaporation or returned to the pit as moisture in the leftover sand.
Weisheit points to damage done in Alberta, Canada, where oil sands have been mined for almost half a century, as an example of why this type of mining shouldn't be allowed in Utah. Gigantic strip-mining operations have destroyed large tracts of Alberta's forests, and the province is struggling with groundwater contamination and toxic wastewater that harms human health and kills wildlife.
But Alberta's booming tar sands industry also has given Canada a robust and growing source of jobs and revenue—and it is the lure of similar riches that has prompted Utah to open its arms to petroleum development companies. Already Utah has granted oil sands land leases to seven businesses, including one that since 2007 has operated a small mine that produces bitumen for local asphalt needs.
Regulatory oversight on state land is less stringent than on federal land in Utah and the political atmosphere is so supportive that in a January letter to the governor, U.S. Oil Sands executive Cameron Todd praised Utah as a "can do state" for petroleum production. He also urged the governor to quickly dispatch the "obstructionist" groups opposing his project.
Utah has even shied away from drawing up a master plan for developing the state's oil sands.
"What we need to assume is business knows their business better than the state," said Jeff Barrett, infrastructure and incentives manager for Utah's Office of Energy Development, which deals with economic matters. "Our role is to stay out of their business."