The state’s five justices found that Moab-based Living Rivers did not file a timely appeal of a 2008 groundwater discharge “permit by rule” for U.S. Oil Sands’ PR Spring Project. Based on that finding, the court ruled that the group could not challenge the Utah Division of Water Quality’s (DWQ’s) decision to issue the permit once the formal 30-day appeals period ended in April 2008.
“Such time limits are not just arbitrary cutoffs,” the court said in its June 24 ruling. “They are important markers, establishing the point at which a party to an administrative proceeding may move forward in reliance on the finality of an agency decision. This case is a prime illustration of that point.”
But Western Resource Advocates staff attorney Rob Dubuc, who appealed subsequent changes to that decision on Living Rivers’ behalf, said that state regulators never informed the public of their decision to issue the permit.
“The rules didn’t require it, and that was DWQ’s practice,” Dubuc said. “That’s one of the issues that we feel the court should have considered, and it doesn’t look like it did.”
Although the law has since been revised to require public notification of “permits by rule,” Utah Department of Environmental Quality Communications Director Donna Kemp Spangler said that no such provisions were in place at the time.
“It was not required,” she said in a July 1 email to The Times-Independent.
With no public notice of the decision, Dubuc said that he and his clients had no way of knowing there was anything to appeal.
“We understand the 30-day window, but we’ve got to know about it first,” Dubuc said.
Dubuc now plans to formally ask the court to review its decision.
“I think the court has set up an impossible hurdle in this case,” he said.
However, U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd believes the court’s ruling validates his company’s plans for the project, which is located near the Grand and Uintah County lines.
“We’re pleased with the outcome,” Todd said. “I don’t think we’re surprised that we’ve prevailed through numerous challenges from folks who are opposed to development in the region.”
U.S. Oil Sands lays groundwork for 2015 mine construction
The Calgary, Alberta-based company is currently ordering equipment from vendors around Utah and the surrounding region. Most of the actual construction work at the project site on the Tavaputs Plateau won’t begin until early next year, Todd said.
During the first phase of the project, the mine would produce about 2,000 barrels of oil per day. It would use a biodegradable, citrus-based solvent to extract low-sulfur bitumen from the site’s strip-mined oil sands, according to Todd.
By his estimates, the company would recycle 98 percent of that solvent, along with an unprecedented 95 percent of the water it plans to use.
“I don’t know anybody out there in the industry who is recycling 95 percent of the water they use, and we’re trying to get to 98 percent,” he said.
It also hopes to reduce its water usage by 75 percent, he said, and it plans to use about half as much energy as the average tar sands mining project does.
“We believe that we’ve got a breakthrough approach that allows the environmental consequences to be greatly reduced,” Todd said.
Unlike many other tar sands projects, the company would not build any mine tailings ponds. Nor would it release any fluids into the surrounding watershed, he said.
“The company is a leader in the industry in that we are using new technologies in ways to more efficiently extract oil,” he said. “In doing so, we have a much smaller footprint on the environment.”
Todd believes it’s unfair to compare the project to the massive tar sands mines in his home province of Alberta, which are typically the same geographic size as Salt Lake City, he said.
Active mining areas at the PR Spring site, in contrast, would never be bigger than the size of a football stadium or a large parking lot, he said.
“If you picture yourself standing on the very top at the edge of the stadium, that’s kind of what our mine will look like,” he said.
As it excavates one side of each 150-foot-deep pit, the company plans to continue reclamation work at the opposite end, he said.
“We reclaim the mine as we go, rather than leaving a big hole in the ground for decades,” he said.
Todd said his company welcomes any ideas about other ways it can improve its operations, or to minimize its potential impacts on the environment. But “non-development activists” are not interested in sharing those kinds of ideas, he said.
“They don’t want better ideas for oil development. They want no development,” he said.
Activists embrace “non-development” label
Castle Valley resident Emily Stock — an organizer with Canyon Country Rising Tide — doesn’t dispute Todd’s claims.
“Yes, we are ‘no-development’ activists when it comes to tar sands development,” Stock said. “Regardless of whether this project would be more efficient than the mines in Alberta, we are still talking about the dirtiest energy development on the planet.”
Stock said that she and many others are concerned about the project’s negative impacts on Utah’s air and water quality, as well as its farther-reaching effects on global climate change.
“The list of concerns is about as big as it gets,” Stock said.
Utah Tar Sands Resistance spokesperson Jessica Lee has no faith in the company’s pledges that it will be a good environmental steward, and calls those vows a “marketing tool” to drum up investor enthusiasm.
“There is nothing environmentally friendly about strip mining,” she said.
“Just because they plan on filling holes as they go does not change the fact that they are strip mining,” she said.
All of that activity is occurring on parcels that the company leases from Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) parcels, and Stock said it highlights the need to “rein in” the agency.
“As a state and as a community, what we stand to lose from tar sands development is inconceivably huge, yet the people have no voice with these state lands,” she said. “The 1 percent of profit that SITLA gives to schools in the state is not worth this, which means we need to be pushing the State of Utah for reform of SITLA’s mandates.”
According to Lee, the company has already begun to clear-cut an estimated 10 to 13 acres of that leased area to make way for a mine processing facility.
On June 16, however, a group called Women of Action Against Violent Extraction (WAAVE) disrupted that work, she said. According to Lee, the group stopped a bulldozer in its tracks, delaying earth-moving activities for the rest of the day.
It’s the kind of action that visitors to a “permanent protest vigil” site set up by several groups learn how to stage. A field school at the site offers lessons in everything from non-violent civil disobedience to lectures on “climate justice,” Lee said.
The number of protesters at the site varies from day to day, ranging from four to 30 people of all ages, according to Lee.
Those visitors have the chance to learn about the surrounding area, and they’re also keeping an eye on day-to-day activities at the PR Spring site and nearby projects, Lee said.
“We’re doing a lot of observation of U.S. Oil Sands and other extraction companies, basically knowing that we’re going to be catching them in a lot of lies,” she said.
For more information about the project, go to: www.usoilsandsinc.com/. To learn more about Utah Tar Sands Resistance, visit: www.tarsandsresist.org/.