Tar Sands & Oil Shale


The state of Utah is actively encouraging speculative tar sands and oil shale industries to take root in Eastern Utah. The reserves of oil shale and tar sands (OSTS) in the Green River Formation of the Colorado River basin surpass the reserves of conventional oil in Saudi Arabia. The OSTS reserves in eastern Utah are being targeted for strip mining because the ore bodies are very near the surface. If these industries succeed in Utah, and the footprint spreads into Colorado and Wyoming, the impacts to land, air and water would surpass the current tar sands mining operations in Alberta, Canada. This development would be a death sentence for the climate.

As one of the most extreme forms of resource extraction, and one of the most greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels, tar sands development is a root cause of climate change par excellence. It is a resource that requires enormous energy inputs to extract, refine, and transport, all the while destroying complex and carbon-sequestering ecosystems. Because of this, Utah occupies a uniquely important place in the fight to create a national energy program that begins to transition away from fossil fuels. Right now, massive amounts of infrastructure are being constructed to support this burgeoning tar sands and oil shale industry.


PR Spring Test pit on bottom with newly cleared area for mining above. Photo courtesy of Chris Baird

PR Spring Test pit on bottom with newly cleared area for mining above. Photo courtesy of Chris Baird

US. Oil Sands (USOS), a Canadian Company, holds leases to strip mine tar sands from 32,005 acres (50 sq. miles) on the Tavaputs Plateau, partially in Grand County.  State regulators are turning a blind eye to the obvious environmental and social implications of a project on this scale.  US Oil Sands planned on commercially producing fuel by last year, but instead filed for bankruptcy in 2017. They began early stages of mining, stripping nearly 25 acres, built haul roads, excavated the first pit, and installed a $80 million processing facility that never worked.  They will have an outstanding debt to SITLA for leasing and minimum royalty of at least $265,000 that should have been paid by July 2017, but was never paid. In 2017, USOS declared bankruptcy and put the mine factory at PR Springs Utah up for sale but got no offers.  Now USOS is called USO Utah, the major share holder, ACMO, remains the same. They decreased their leased acreage to 5,930 acres, but there are more companies still holding leases, like Petroteq. This speculative industry is not good for Utah. An area the size of Rhode Island is currently available for oil shale and tar sands leasing.

Tar sands mining requires 1.5-4 barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. This water is contaminated with known carcinogens and other toxins, used to wash the tar, and then released onto the surface of the ground with out so much as a lined pit to trap the chemical laden water. These high canyons are head water streams for the Green and Colorado Rivers, which supply nearly 40 million people with drinking water.

The tar sands, once mined, will have to be processed and refined. The logical place this might happen is Salt Lake City, where the refineries already processes some Tar Sands from Alberta. Salt Lake City has some of the worst air quality in the world. To impose the burden of refining this toxic fuel on the communities in the Wasatch Valley is unacceptable. The other option would be to expand and pave the Book Cliffs Highway south into Grand County. If this option goes through, it is likely that a  refinery will be built in Green River to process the tar, polluting the Moab Valley and the Green River.

Tar sands and oil shale are not normal fuels; they require huge amounts of chemicals and energy  to turn them into a liquid oil. This extra energy could come in the form of natural gas, coal, or nuclear power (perhaps the proposed Green River Power Plant). Tar sands produce over 3 times the green house gas emissions of regular oil, while also destroying complex and carbon-sequestering ecosystems. We can not afford to further climate change while using up our precious water reserves in the process.

These industries rely on public money to make a profit. The Utah Community Impact Board was created to help communities cope with the impacts of oil, gas, and other mining. Instead, much of that public grant money is being used to create roads, power lines, and other infrastructure required solely for extreme energy extraction and providing no benefit to the nearby communities.
$86.5 million dollars of public money were spent on upgrading the paved highway, Seep Ridge Road, leading directly to the PR Spring tar sands mine. Another $150 million dollars of public money could be spent to connect that road to 1-70 (the Book Cliffs Highway). This money should be used to aid in a community transition AWAY from fossil fuels, not to further entrench us in a dying industry.

The Tavaputs Plateau, aka the Bookcliffs, is world renown area with quality back country and big game hunting. It’s high elevation (8,000 ft) forests full of aspens, Douglas-fir, ponderosas, and scrub oak. Elk, deer, bear, coyotes, cougars, sage grouse, and many other important species make their homes in this vast plateau.

RIGHT NOWdouble bannersl (20)
We are building power to stop these projects. If we don’t act quickly we will be locked into large scale dirty energy production, or at the very best, will have wasted billions of dollars on unusable roads, rails, export terminals, power lines, and processing plants when we could be using that money to transition AWAY from fossil fuels.

Maps of Tar Sands, Oil Shale, and the Book Cliffs Highway

Western Resource Advocates
Center for Biological Diversity

Readings for greater understanding:

Why the Climate Movement Needs a Reboot by Cam Fenton
This essay looks at the victories that the Climate Movement is having in much needed critical light and points to ways to move forward to create more transformative political solutions than the industry sponsored agreements of today.

Capitalism vs. the Climate
by Naomi Klein
This essay points to the root causes of climate change and gives concrete steps for collective action needed to achieve a transition away from free market capitalism. As she says in this article, “the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power.”
The Shock of Victory by David Graeber
Graeber looks at the history of the Anti-nuclear and Global Justice Movements, highlighting  unsung victories and pointing out the ways in which mass mobilization has changed the popular dialogue around nuclear power and free-trade agreements.
The oil and gas industry’s exemptions to major environmental laws
This article gives a brief rundown of major the major laws designed for environmental protection and the exemptions that have been granted to industry.
This Land Was Your Land by Christopher Ketcham
Ketcham paints a full picture of tar sands and some of the current debates around state and federal land in Utah.
A Movement Action Plan by Bill Moyer
A strategic look at social movement progression.

Organizing for Power
by Lisa Fifthian
Resources on Community Organizing and Direct ActionGiant Puppets by Sara Peattie
Great how-to videos on making giant puppets 

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