Category Archives: Thoughts

Thoughts After a Recent Trip to the Tar Sands

Recent expansion of the PR Spring tar sands mine.

by Sarah Stock

I feel powerless. I feel beaten down. I hear heavy machinery in my sleep. I see torn up earth when I close my eyes. Piles of mangled trees, still green from the life they just had, pulled up and pushed down into heaps at the bottom of a strip mine by the force of mindless greed that fuels the destruction of this earth. I see a tunnel bore into the side of the earth, oozing out a slow stream of black sticky tar, the remnants of ancient life that when burned unleash toxins and greenhouse gases that are dooming the world that I know now. Migratory birds that mark the seasons slowly stop coming back. I see a buck in the aspens and then notice that he has a large circular hairless growth on his side. When I swim in my river, the water that’s always brought me a deep calm, awe, and connection to the life force, I now wonder what is in it. I think of the fracking upstream. I think of the tailings ponds and impoundments of “waste water.” As if water isn’t essential for life, sacred.

I want my innocence back. But it is gone because I chose to open my eyes and my mind. It is gone because I was raised to ask questions. It is gone because my love of nature led me to study ecology and I learned that every single ecosystem on Earth is gasping for life in a rapidly changing and poisonous world. It is gone because I listen to my friends on the reservation when they talk about what colonization has done to their home and to their culture. It is gone because my parents taught me to look into the face of grief and acknowledge it. And now I want to look away, but I can’t because for some reason, through my tears, I still dream of a day when everyone cares enough to step out of the rushing stream that is the American Dream and stop working, so they can start feeling, so they can start daring to work together to make some deep changes, changes at every level. I can’t do it alone. It’s the same rugged individualism, the self sufficiency, the fear of others that drove my ancestors to the far reaches of civilization that stands in our way. It’s extraction, mindless consumption, single people in big houses, industrial agriculture, the endless search for profit and “growth,” the blind faith in an economy that only grows because it devours diversity, whether we’re talking about human cultures or species.

The hurdle I come up against again and again is our unwillingness to do the hard work of working together, of depending on one another. We have a tough job ahead. We must create something that doesn’t yet exist, we must find a new way of doing things that teases out the good from the past and uses imagination to transform the bad into a future that is better than the one being written by the fossil fuel empire. This won’t be done by a handful of non-profits, the president, or by new market mechanisms to curb green house gases. It will be done by people, using their strengths and their work to transform our relationship to the earth and to each other everyday. It will be done by regular people, getting in the way, disrupting business as usual, loosing their fear and reclaiming their power. These things are possible. Read some books, stay involved, change your life, grieve with me, and find strength in the power that we have when we organize.

On site processing facility in rapid construction phase.

On site processing facility in rapid construction phase.

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Traversing the Tavaputs Plateau

Elk

Elk

The air is thin up here at 8,000 feet. I’m sitting near the site of the first tar sands mine in the country, P.R. Springs. The sun’s strength diminishes as it approaches the western horizon–snow capped mountains behind layer after layer of high desert ridges.  Somewhere in those folds, the Green River tumbles though Desolation Canyon. I can hear a wild turkey gobble every now and again. The land continues to rise to the south. From that ridge I can make out the La Sals pointing me home, surrounded by miniature Fisher and Adobe Mesas. I could see a large crack in the rock that must be the almighty Colorado rushing through Horsetheif and Westwater. I could even make out the Abajos, Arches National Park, and Grand Junction lighting up for the evening. We saw 24 elk grazing on the ridge. Down below, between the Colorado River and Book Cliffs, is the Cisco desert and the I-70 corridor, fast becoming home to industrial development – evaporation ponds, a waste-water injection well, new home to the Atlas uranium tailings pile, a proposed nuclear power plant, a proposed tar sands refinery.

US Oil Sands test pit at PR Springs

US Oil Sands test pit at PR Springs

From up on top of the incredible Tavaputs Plateau, which sits upon an even greater Colorado Plateau, I am struck with how preposterous it seems that Uintah County is so removed from people’s realities in Grand County. From this vantage point, it is quite obvious that that all this destruction and pollution from fracking, oil, gas, and now tar sands and oil shale is just upstream and is wrapped in a grand plan that involves all of canyon country. My heart weighs heavy after this visit to the mine site. The buoyant notion that logical thinking leaves in me is slowly deflating. “It’s uneconomical, disastrous for the climate, technology is unproven, there’s not enough water”…Well, they’re paving the way quickly and surely.

This road construction stops right at the PR Springs tar sands mine

This road construction stops right at the PR Springs tar sands mine

The drive from the north was sickening. First Roosevelt and Vernal filled with fracking headquarters, brine mixing stations, chemical distributors, giant trucks toting gas and contaminated (or soon to be) water. Then, mile after mile of freshly paved highway through a freshly scarred landscape crisscrossed with pipelines and polka dotted with well pads. The road turned to grated dirt and signs of construction started to pop up. An empty bulldozer sat next to a newly blazed corridor through a hillside. Mile after mile of mangled old growth junipers and pinons lay dead on their sides. We passed small crews operating gigantic road eating machines. Why would they need a road over 100 feet wide? The four lanes lead right to PR Springs and the Red Leaf Resources oil shale operation. Are Uintah County tax payers paying for this? The upgrade of the high-speed, four-lane trucking route stops right at the county line. Are they anticipating that Grand County will continue the Book Cliffs highway and connect it to the planned energy infrastructure along I-70? Or are they content to truck everything to Salt Lake, already filled with industry’s toxic breath?

Seep Ridge Road Construction. Upgrading a dirt road to a four lane, high speed, trucking route.

Seep Ridge Road Construction. Upgrading a dirt road to a four lane, high speed, trucking route.

We hiked all over the drainage system just below the already huge tar sands “test pit.” The canyons are filled with elk trails, pinon, juniper, ponderosas, and Douglas Fir. Around all the seeps and springs we found groves of aspens and often abandon ranch structures. Water was flowing at some point in every drainage we checked.  US Oil Sands and the state engineer seem to agree that the PR Springs mine site has negligible ground water and thus water pollution cannot be a cause for concern. Getting baseline data for water quality in the area will be essential in this fight. A biologist accompanied us along the hike, counting and pointing out red tail hawks, flickers, chickadees, bluebirds, and starting an inventory of species.

Main Canyon, just below the tar sands test pit.

Main Canyon, just below the tar sands test pit.

We stumbled upon spots around the ridge that had been deforested already for various core samples and wells. In some places, the earth and vegetation had already been scraped off to expose the tar sands. They gray gritty cakes of tar and sand were hard in the cold spring air, very much like a crumbling parking lot buried just below the surface. P.R. Springs has some of the most accessible deposits.

Tar Sands Deposits at PR Springs

Tar Sands Deposits at PR Springs

Excitement and foreboding course through my veins. This fight is much bigger than stopping just one tar sands mine. It’s about also stopping oil shale, corporate manipulation of our public process, and the continued expansion of the extreme energy empire. We’re here, we’re everywhere, and we’re growing in strength. We believe a better way is possible and that the continued exploitation of these fossil fuels is destroying our ability to cope with the needed transition. Extreme energy extraction will no longer be tolerated. The costs are simply too high.

View of the drainage just below the test pit. If allowed to expand, US Oil sands would likely dump all of the "overburden" from mining into this canyon. Industry's term for this is "valley fill."

View of the drainage just below the test pit. If allowed to expand, US Oil sands would likely dump all of the “overburden” from mining into this canyon. Industry’s term for this is “valley fill.”

This tar sands mine was abandoned in 1983, unreclaimed. US Oil Sands has yet to pay their 1.6 million dollar reclamation bond and yet they are already deforesting and strip mining a test pit.

This tar sands mine was abandoned in 1983, unreclaimed. US Oil Sands has yet to pay their 1.6 million dollar reclamation bond and yet they are already deforesting and strip mining a different test pit.

On the Banks of the Green River where industry trucks come to fill up water and brine mix.

On the Banks of the Green River where industry trucks come to fill up water and brine mix.

Fracking Rig outside of Vernal

Fracking Rig outside of Vernal

The Tar Sands Triangle

Overlook in the "Tar Sands Triangle"Overlook in the “Tar Sands Triangle”

by Sarah S.

I just emerged from the windy, winding, wilderness that is referred to by industry as “the Tar Sands Triangle.” It’s a vast stretch of mesa tops bisected by steep, narrow canyon walls, only accessible by forty miles of washboard dirt roads after a barren stretch of highway. I was lucky enough to accompany a group of college students with the Wild Rockies Field Institute into the backcountry to give a lesson on unconventional fuels on the Colorado Plateau.

Historically this area was used by ranch families and was even a hangout for the notorious Wild Bunch when they were running from the law. Cattle, horses, pronghorn, and even wild burrows are scattered between the sand dunes, sage, and blackbrush. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, mysterious Etta Place, Kid Curry, Elzy Lay, and the rest would herd stolen cattle up to these parts and corral them in tucked away pastures ringed with natural rock walls. They could see a posse coming from miles away because of the dust they’d kick up as they rode. In that time, the Wild Bunch would escape into the canyon maze and emerge 100s of miles away.  Recently this area was dubbed a “Region of Historical Significance,” which in the end will hopefully help protect it against the threat of tar sands mining.

Pronghorn in front of the Henry Mountains, the last explored mountain range in the lower 48.

Pronghorn in front of the Henry Mountains, the last explored mountain range in the lower 48.

The canyons cut steeply down, revealing layer after layer of ancient rock, exposing the past to our curious scrutiny. Navajo domes crown the canyon– peach, pink, ruddy. We followed a trail for a while that was hewn into this rock by ranchers or uranium prospectors. The kayenta layer emerged as we dropped. It’s composed of purplish slabs of fossilized mud from a shallow seashore gone by. Here one can sometimes find the detailed print of a dinosaur foot left on the ancient mud flats.

We hiked down to the canyon bottom where cottonwoods were just leafing out and smells of wet willow blew in spring gusts. It rained all day; there was lighting and thunder overhead. Hail came and went and then the sun shone in a blue sky right before it disappeared over the tall Wingate wall. It’s been dry this year, so the chilly moisture was welcome. As climate change progresses, it’s predicted that this area will become more arid with extremes in heat and drought.

Narrows in White Rim Sandstone. This is the layer that tar sands are found.

Narrows in White Rim Sandstone. This is the layer that tar sands are found.

The class was curious and engaged, they already knew about Alberta Tar Sands and they all believe in climate change. It was nice. Then we delved into details about oil shale and tar sands on the Colorado Plateau. Water use and industrialization of wild places were the main topics of discussion.  At some point one of the students stopped me, “Wait, the oil and gas industry doesn’t have to abide by the Safe Drinking Water Act?” No siree, thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, injection wells for fracking aren’t protected by this act.

It was good to be in that Desert. I hiked out the six miles alone the next day. I was reminded that I come from this place. I don’t own it, no one does, but it has shaped me none-the-less. It’s wild, untamed, inaccessible, un-ownable. It’s fierce, nurturing, resilient and fragile all at once. I am from the Colorado Plateau and if I don’t rise up to protect it, who will? As Edward Abbey nicely put it, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” I will not let vast expanses of this wild desert be destroyed, the climate irreparably altered, and our communities bombarded with boom-town trouble for the prosperity of the oil empire. We can do better, and we will.

Rain on the Navajo slickrock.

Rain on the Navajo slickrock.

Wild Rockies Field Institute class hiking into the Dirty Devil River.

Wild Rockies Field Institute class hiking into the Dirty Devil River.