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Oil Sands Mining in Utah Clears Major Hurdle

Two environmental organizations say they will continue fighting first large project in the U.S.

Aug 29, 2012
(Page 2 of 2 )
John Weisheit, Conservation Director of Living Rivers

Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates argued that oil sands mining will leave solvents and petrochemicals in unlined waste pits to soak into the ground and ultimately the aquifers when it rains and winter snow melts.

But state water regulators testified that the mining operation won't pollute groundwater because it is in an arid region called the Book Cliff with no groundwater except at extreme depths. The only water U.S. Oil Sands has discovered is from a well more than 2,000 feet deep, whose water the company will use in the bitumen refining process. Deeper aquifers in the area contain stagnant water heavy with salts and minerals, making it unsuitable for drinking.

Judge Allen said a number of factors persuaded her to recommend in favor of the water quality division and U.S. Oil Sands, including evidence that the company had drilled 180 holes as deep as 305 feet to locate oil sands deposits and that none of the holes revealed water.

The judge also cited a number of factors in U.S. Oil Sands' mining process that support the state's decision not to require water monitoring or a pollution permit. The company maintains that its extraction process, which uses a citrus-based chemical called d-Limonene, will be environmentally responsible. D-Limonene is listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Generally Recognized as Safe" list, though the agency's determination was based on small quantities that are sometimes used to give foods a citrus flavor.

The judge said she was convinced d-Limonene is generally non-toxic and that most of it would be recycled in the extraction process. She also cited U.S. Oil Sands' promise that there will no tailings ponds of chemicals and liquids to leach into the soil.

The appeal and resulting delay had angered U.S. Oil Sands executives, who wrote a letter to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in January rebuking the company's opponents as "obstructionists" to energy development in the state and asking the governor's help in thwarting future challenges.

The appeal has put the U.S. Oil sands project behind schedule by nearly two years, costing both the state and the company millions of dollars, according to the letter signed by Todd, the chief executive officer.

"These delays threaten not only the economic viability of our project, but other projects to follow," Todd wrote.

To prevent what Todd called "frivolous" challenges, he urged the state to adopt a number of policies that would restrict appeals, impose sanctions on organization whose appeals fail, and streamline reviews.

"We firmly believe that through a diligent and co-operative approach we can solve the most intractable of challenges," Todd told the governor.

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