Utah officials have given a Canadian company the green light to begin mining oil sands on a remote plateau in Eastern Utah without first obtaining a pollution permit or monitoring groundwater quality, an action that sets the stage for a possible court battle over the fragile region.
The board of the Utah Division of Water Quality agreed with Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands' contention that there was little or no water in the area of the company's proposed mine site and affirmed the agency's earlier decision not to require the permits or monitoring.
The board's 9-2 vote Wednesday caps years of wrangling with the water agency over U.S. Oil Sands' proposal to open the first large-scale oil sands mine in the United States in the Book Cliffs, an area renowned for its abundant wildlife but also dotted with occasional oil and gas wells.
The debate over whether oil sands mining should be allowed in Utah inched forward this week when an environmental group and the company that wants to open the mine both filed papers responding to a judge's recent ruling on whether water resources will be adequately protected.
Administrative Law Judge Sandra Allen ruled on Aug. 28 that the Utah Division of Water Quality acted legally when it decided that U.S. Oil Sands Inc. should not have to conduct water monitoring or obtain a pollution permit to begin mining on Utah's Colorado plateau, an arid region dotted with oil and gas wells and used by hikers and hunters.
On Wednesday Living Rivers, a Moab, Utah-based environmental organization, submitted a 22-page brief arguing that the judge erred when she determined that the only water deserving of protection is found in deep aquifers and that there is so little water close to the surface that it does not qualify for protection under Utah law.
Rob Dubuc, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, which is supporting Living Rivers' efforts to halt the project, said all that's needed to settle the issue is to look around the mine site and the entire Colorado plateau.
(This story has been updated to add comments by Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.)
An administrative law judge in Salt Lake City has ruled against two environmental organizations that are trying to block a Canadian company's plan to open the first large-scale oil sands mine in the United States.
Judge Sandra Allen sided with U.S. Oil Sands and Utah's Division of Water Quality in deciding that the state rightfully granted the Calgary-based company permission to mine and process oils sands without requiring a pollution permit or water monitoring at the PR Spring mining site in eastern Utah.
The judge agreed with the Water Quality Division's opinion that there is so little ground water within 1,500 feet of the surface of the proposed mine that additional safeguards weren't needed.
"Substantial evidence . . . supports a finding that ground water has not been located and may be assumed absent in the project area except for a deep regional aquifer," Allen said in her 40-page recommendation released Tuesday afternoon.
"The PR Spring facility and operations will have no more than a de minimis (minimal) actual or potential effect on ground water quality."
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."
A plan to strip-mine oil sands crude on U.S. land for the first time in northeastern Utah is facing legal challenge.
Through a legal appeal, a pair of local environmental groups are working to overturn a decision earlier this month by John Baza, director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (UDOGM). He upheld a permit approval for a 62-acre mine in the remote Uinta Basin of the Colorado Plateau.
Should the legal option fail, the groups said they are determined to block the project – by whatever "peaceful" means.