Tar Sands Strip Mining what’s at risk?

What are tar sands? 

Tar sands are sedimentary rocks that contain bitumen, a heavy hydrocarbon that can be turned into usable oil through a lengthy process that requires a tremendous amount of energy and water.

Tar Sands strip mine test pit

Test pit at tar sands strip mine PR Springs Utah.

Oil extracted from tar sands is called crude bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, sticky, black oil that will not flow to a well in its natural state.

chunk of tar sands

Tar Sands rock

Bitumen is extracted from the mined tar sands through a process that mixes the tar sands with hot water or chemicals to separate the bitumen from the sand.

In preparing to the land to strip mine for tar sands or oil shale all trees and vegetation must be stripped from the surface and underlying soils are removed to reveal tar sand deposits..

US Oil Sands tar sands test pit

US Oil Sands tar sands test pit with Main Canyon in the background.

It takes approximately two tons of tar sands along with another two tones of overburden (containing soil, sand, clay and rock) to yield one barrel of oil.

How are tar sands different in Utah than in Canada?
  • In the Colorado Plateau, tar sands deposits are typically as hard as asphalt, though there are seeps of sticky tar as well.
  • In Canada, the oil particles are surrounded by an envelope of water, but in Utah that moisture is not present so the technologies that work in Canada do not work in Utah.
  • A tar sand strip mine and tar processing facility has been constructed within the boundaries of the Utes’ Uintah and Ouray Reservation, on lands stolen from the Ute Tribe under the Dawes Act of 1887.
  • U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian company, has cleared 100 acres of prime Elk and Bear habitat in the Book Cliffs and strip mining for tar has begun on a test scale.
  • U.S. Oil Sands went bankrupt in 2017 since then they have reduced their leasehold by 81% and changed their name to 2020 Resources 
  • Utah School Trust Lands (SITLA) is seeking to lease tens of thousands of acres of school trust lands, within the Uncompahgre Reservation for strip mining of tar sands or oil shale.
  • Red Leaf Resources, a foreign company, leased 17,000 acres of school trust lands also within the Ute Nation boundaries, for an oil shale strip-mine near Indian Canyon.
  • The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has designated nearly one million acres of federal public lands in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for tar sands and oil shale strip mines.
Test pit at tar sands strip mine

Test pit at tar sands strip mine PR Springs Utah.

What does it take to turn this rock into oil?
  • Getting oil out of rock requires a gigantic effort. First, the mining company must strip mine the land (also called open pit mining) and crush the rock contained with it, then use a complex series of processes to extract oil from the rock.
  • Water, chemical solvents, and heat are added to make a slurry and eventually separate the oil from the rock and sand. Used water will then be dumped in unlined pits.
  • These processes are incredibly energy intensive, producing three times the CO2 produced by mining and refining regular crude. In Canada, the tar sands industry is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases, creating 40 million tons of CO2 per year
  • Crude bitumen is a thick, sticky form of crude oil, so heavy and viscous (thick) that it will not flow unless heated or diluted. Tar Sands must be transported in heated trucks or diluted in pipelines. This makes it more difficult to cleanup the inevitable spills and breaks.
  • After the oil is transported to a refinery, it must undergo another complex series of processes to turn the bitumen (tar sands oil) into a low-grade diesel fuel.
  • Turning the bitumen into fuel also produces huge piles of nasty by-products including petroleum coke and sulphur.
  • These by-products create hazardous waste problems for communities around the mines and the refineries. Sulfur pyramids in Alberta are up to 10 storeys high.
What happens to the wastewater and chemical solvents used in the process?
  • U.S. Oil Sands has permission from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to dump wastewater right onto the land—not even using lined tailings ponds, as companies in Canada do—as if the toxic water wouldn’t make its way into the watershed, or poison the wildlife and cattle in the area that people then consume.
  • Wild animals and cows are going into the strip-mine and drinking from the toxic pool of water that is accumulating there, and the people who consume them likely have no idea of the threat they are being exposed to.
  • The company likes to talk about how ‘natural’ its solvents are. However, as Dr. William Johnson from the University of Utah says, the solvent itself isn’t necessarily the biggest part of the problem. The solvent liberates dangerous substances like arsenic and mercury from the rock as it frees up the oil particles, allowing these poisons to make their way into the water supply.
What is oil shale? What threat does it pose?
  • Oil shale is another type of oil-containing sedimentary rock. Like tar sands, oil shale — or more accurately, tar shale — requires massive amounts of energy to extract and refine, and it has similar human health and ecosystem impacts.
  • Oil shale is different from shale oil. It’s not pockets of oil in rock, oil particles are  cemented into the rock, like tar sands.
Mining tar sands and oil shale devastates ecosystems.
Tar sands and Oil shale mining would make our rivers and aquifers toxic.
  • At PR Springs, U.S. Oil Sands’ has leases to strip-mine fifty (50) square miles of rolling hills of sagebrush and rabbit-brush and extensive forests including pine, Douglas fir, spruce, gambol oaks junipers and aspen.
  • Tar sands mining utterly decimates the land, flattening the land’s natural contours and turning it into a vast expanse of rubble and toxic waste.
  • Strip mining will remove the trees and soil; grade the land; and dig and pulverize the earth to extract oil-containing rock. After stripping and crushing and processing rocks to extract the tar, US Oil Sands would leave a moonscape of rubble, in the company’s chilling words, “as clean as beach sand.”
Tar sands and oil shale strip mining are the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet
  • Producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the tar sands releases up to three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil.
  • Generating the heat needed to extract bitumen from the tar sands and upgrade it. uses a huge amount of energy. 
  • Producing oil from tar sands requires using up two to five barrels of water for every single barrel of oil created.
  • Beautiful Willow Creek is at risk as it winds through Main Canyon below U.S. Oil Sands’ test pit, carrying water to the Green River and onto the Colorado river.
  • Extracting bitumen from the tar sands will mobilize heavy metal compounds present in the tar including uranium, mercury, and arsenic. Tar processing will cause these dangerous toxins which can cause cancer, birth defects, and mutations to move into the water supply, spreading poison in the Green and Colorado River.
  • Water rights are over extended in the west. (Currently, 80% of the Colorado’s flow goes to irrigation, and the Colorado supports 40 million water drinkers.)There is no unclaimed water available for strip mining. 
These types of mining operations are expensive, speculative and previously failed.
  • Numerous tar sand and oil shale mining projects have started in the US however  none has ever been economically successful. In 1982, Exxon pulled out of Colorado oil shale overnight, laying off 2,000 people with no warning.
  • The Bryson 4 tar sands mine was abandoned in 1983 in Main Canyon near the U.S. Oil Sands’ test pit with tar seeps and tar veins exposed and harming wildlife to this day.
  • Oil shale and tar sands prospectors reemerge every couple of decades with empty promises of riches and claims that they’ve finally developed the right technology.
  • Taxpayers have had to bear the burden of infrastructure costs. Seep Ridge Road cost over 80 Million in monies appropriated from other state road projects. Seep Ridge road is overbuilt and unnecessary. The road ends at the PR Springs mine site and subsidizes tar sand and oil shale development directly.
What has happened in Canada
  • In Alberta, Canada, First Nation communities downstream from the Athabasca tar sands mines are suffering rare cancers such as cancer of the bile and increased rates of premature births
  • People downstream from the Canadian tar sand strip mines are advised they now must drink bottled water. They can no longer eat fish from the Athabasca River. People in these communities must take short, lukewarm showers to avoid skin problems.
  • The fish and game downstream from the tar sand strip-mines are contaminated with toxins unfit for consumption. First Nations communities rely on these food sources.
  • Wild animals in the area have unusual tumors and mutations. Studies have confirmed that tar sands mining is responsible for these atrocities.
  • the Athabasca River is contaminated with cancer, mutation, and birth-defect-causing compounds. According to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  
  • These compounds are toxic in parts per trillion.
  • Remote communities have less access to medical treatment and do not receive adequate care.
  • footnoted PDF here: https://goo.gl/468kwJ