Features and Occasionals

2012 Unconventional Fuels Conference

By Amy Brunvand

Misnomer for sure. The real topic was coal, oil shale and tar sands development and how our state legislators think this is pretty swell.

When folk-music legend Peter Yarrow gave a benefit concert for Peaceful Uprising at the State Room in Salt Lake City in May he said that Utahns are on the cutting edge of environmental activism. He praised Tim DeChristopher’s act of civil disobedience as the inspiration for massive protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline which was supposed to carry oil from Canadian tar sands.

Utah activists need to be on the cutting edge, because we, too, live at ground zero of the tar sands problem. Right now the State of Utah is actively promoting plans to stripmine over a million acres of Utah public lands for so-called “unconventional fuels.” Innovative new energy sources? Nope, we’re talking hydrocarbon oil sources such as oil shale and tar sands that have just been too expensive to extract in the past.

The place to find out what oil-shale boosters are up to was the “2012 University of Utah Uncon­ven­tional Fuels Conference” sponsored by the U’s Institute for Clean and Secure Energy (ICSE) in May in the Varsity Room of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Clean and secure energy sounds like a good thing, but the actual mission of the Institute is to promote alarmingly dirty unconventional fuels such as “clean coal,” oil shale and tar sands. After the Bush era Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandated fast-tracking oil shale/tar sands development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, ICSE received millions of dollars in earmarks for technology and policy research—the first such funding since the last oil-shale boom went bust in the 1980s.

When one conference participant asked about the Orwellian name of the institute, ICSE Director Phillip J. Smith gave the disingenuous answer that other research institutes are studying other kinds of energy. All right then, but why not be upfront and just call it the Institute for Coal, Oil Shale and Tar Sands Development?

Utah is at the epicenter of unconventional fuels development primarily because Utah politicians are the only ones naive enough to ignore history. On “Black Sunday” May 2, 1982, an overnight oil-shale bust precipitated an economic collapse that lasted for decades on the Western Slope of Colorado. Public concerns and skepticism from other states have prompted the Obama Admini­stration to pull back from the Bush era plan in order to re-evaluate po­tentially catastrophic environmental and social impacts.

But while Wyoming and Colorado are shying away from unconventional fuels, Utah is jumping in with both feet. And while the federal decision is pending, Utah has pushed forward with unconventional fuel development on private property and state lands.

The guy with the self-proclaimed “most unconventional job in the U.S.” is John Nowoslawski, the Un­conventional Energy development manager for the State of Utah. There aren’t many similar positions, probably because nobody but Utah is wildly enthusiastic about the prospect of starting up massive new strip mining operations using unproven technologies. At the Unconventional Fuels Conference Nowoslawski gushed about how much fun it is to work boosting an emerging oil shale indus­try in such a supportive political environment and assured conference participants that his job is to assist industry: “If your job is responsible development of unconventional fuels, it is the job of our office to help you,” he promised, “The idea is to be one voice for the energy industry.” He claimed “obfuscation and misinformation characterize the dialog about unconventional fuels” (though he didn’t say whether boosters or opponents are more responsible for the lack of clarity). Ominously, he said that his office is busy writing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Manage­ment that he “can’t talk about without getting in trouble,” and boasted of his “crazy idea” to set up rent-free, pre-permitted “oil sands technology zones” on state lands (never mind that revenue from these lands is supposed to raise money for schools).

The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that energy companies have already given more than $235,000 to Governor Gary Herbert’s re-election campaign so the overt boosterism of conference speakers is no real surprise. Some of the rhetoric, though, was extreme. Like L. Doug Smoot, a member of the Utah Energy Task Force who helped write the “Governor’s 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan.” Smoot had the rather bizarre notion that in order to promote “self-determination” Utah should become energy independent and start exporting oil (as if Utah might someday become the newest member of OPEC). Smoot insisted that Utah supports free-market energy development despite “incentives” for oil shale and tar sands which consist of suspiciously subsidy-like programs such as tax refunds to energy developers and rent-free access to State land. He groused about new federal air quality regulations saying that at least one Utah coal power plant could be closed if it isn’t allowed to keep on spewing poisonous mercury. He complained that federal regulations mean “Utah is not allowed to access energy sources without government approval” (never mind that the resources are under federal public land), and griped that “Kapairo­witz coal can’t be used” (without mentioning that you would have to stripmine Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to get it). Smoot refused to comment when asked whether it’s a problem that Utah’s severance taxes are so much lower than Wyoming and Colorado that Utah citizens receive significantly less public benefit from energy production.

Ex-Senator Bob Bennett (who for many years was personally responsible for big ICSE earmarks) said that after the European economy tanked, Europeans stopped talking about climate change and started talking about how great fracking is. He gloated that Western oil shale and tar sands could potentially prop up the fossil-fueled economy for another 30 years or so, and hoped that we could stop all the silly talk about solar and wind power. He didn’t say how struggling economies are going to afford to cope with climate change impacts.

It’s frankly disturbing to sit through talk after talk that panders to the fossil fuel industry and denies it’s impacts when in fact, citizens of Utah are being asked to take some very big risks and sacrifices in exchange for corporate profits and a few jobs. We are being asked to destroy large swaths of Utah’s glorious wild landscape; We are being asked to sacrifice clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat; We are being asked to absorb even greater population growth. If more people move to Utah for jobs we will need to expand infrastructure like roads, housing, and schools.

“Unconventional fuels” are still hydrocarbons with all the same problems as other fossil fuels including greenhouse gas emissions, but with a bigger price tag. In pursuit of oil shale, we are being asked to postpone efforts to move toward sustainable energy and live in a much hotter, drier Utah. All in all, it doesn’t sound to me like a very good deal.


An A-Z list of Oil Shale and Tar Sands Issues:

Air Quality: In winter months high ozone levels make the air in the Uintah Basin (where there is currently an energy boom) unhealthy to breathe. A full report on why is due out in October 2012 from Energy Dynamics Laboratory.

Climate Change: Is apparently not a consideration for Utah politicians. 

Environmental advocates: are extremely concerned about the impacts of strip mining millions of acres of Utah public lands. Some of the local groups working on this issue are: 

  • Utah Tar Sands Resistance: tarsandsutah.blueskyinstitute.org
  • Living Rivers: livingrivers.org
  • Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance: suwa.org
  • Utah Chapter Sierra Club: utah.sierraclub.org

Federal Regulations: Considering all the industry griping about oppressive federal regulations it’s ironic that developers say it’s better to develop energy in the U.S. which has more stringent environmental regulations than to export our environmental problems to places with lax rules. Despite claims that federal regulations are inhibiting energy development, Utah is currently experiencing an energy boom. Apparently, the regulations are not that onerous after all.

Oil Shale and Tar Sands: In order to get oil out you need to scrape off the surface ecosystem and cook the rocks. The State of Utah would like to open 670,558 acres of BLM land for oil shale strip mining (mostly in the Uinta Basin) and 431,224 acres for tar sands strip mining (Mostly in the middle of the San Rafael Swell and near Canyonlands National Park). The Interior Dept. is making a decision about how many acres could actually be strip mined based on information in the “2012 Oil Shale & Tar Sands Programatic EIS”: http://ostseis.anl.gov/index.cfm

Oil Shale Developers: All developers claim that their extraction technologies are environmentally sound, use only perfectly safe biodegradable solvents, and require little or no water. Companies currently operating in Utah are: 

  • Enefit: (Estonia): www.enefit.com/en/oil/projects/start
  • Red Leaf Resources: (Utah) www.redleafinc.com
  • TOTAL: (France, pronounced TOE-tall ) www.total.com/en/home-page-940596.html
  • U.S. Oil Sands: (Canada) www.usoilsandsinc.com/

Sage Grouse: In order to strip mine oil shale and tar sands a lot of sagebrush would have to be scraped away, which causes habitat loss for creatures like the sage grouse, a charming but finicky bird that eats only sagebrush. The State of Utah wants to avoid having sage grouse listed as an endangered species because then, by law, you couldn’t kill or harass them or put tar sands strip mines where they live. Utah Public Land Policy Coordinator Kathleen Clarke has suggested that the State could avoid the sage grouse issue by simply cooking up its own study to contradict previous scientific studies.

Strip Mining: or “surface mining” as the industry likes to call it, means scraping off the surface ecosystem, cooking the oil out of the rocks and putting back what the industry calls “clean sand”. 

SITLA: The State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is a Utah government agency that manages land for-profit in order to raise revenues for public schools. In order to get a jump-start over impending federal leasing, SITLA has already leased over 90,000 acres of trust lands for oil shale/ tar sands exploration, with initial development of commercial projects beginning at the PR Springs Project (U.S. Oil Sands). In February EarthFirst! Staged a tar sands protest at the SITLA office and in April Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Occupy SLC and Peaceful Uprising protested at SITLA with a citizen’s public hearing and guerrilla street theater. 

Utah Energy Plan: The “Governor’s 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan” has been criticized for over-emphasizing fossil fuels and underemphasizing sustainable energy resources. Governor Herbert recently appointed Cody Stewart as his new Energy Advisor. Stewart is an energy lobbyist with a history of setting up fake grassroots groups that take extreme positions against climate change research and in favor of unfettered drilling and exploration for oil and gas.

Water: in May a Utah Department of Environmental Quality hearing on water issues related to Utah’s first tar sands strip mine at PR Springs (U.S. Oil Sands) was mysteriously closed to the public. Living Rivers is suing to stop the project due to concerns about groundwater contamination. 

Wilderness: In many places public lands with wilderness characteristics overlay oil shale deposits, and in even more places the deposits lie very close to National Parks, National Monuments and popular recreation areas like the San Rafael Swell or the White River. The Wallace Stegner Center will soon release a report about these conflicts.

This article was originally published on May 25, 2012.