The Moab-based organization Living Rivers has been trying to block next year’s development of a tar sands mine in southern Uintah County and northern Grand County on the Tavaputs Plateau. The group has cited concerns that the strip-mining venture could cause irreparable environmental damage.
But the Utah Supreme Court, instead of weighing those worries, found that Living Rivers hadn’t filed their grievances in a timely manner. Specifically, the court said that opponents were too late in filing an appeal to a 2008 decision issued by the Utah Division of Water Quality that permitted groundwater discharge activities associated with the project. Had opponents filed legal challenges to the mine, they would have had to do so within a 30-day appeals period that ended more than six years ago, in late April of 2008.
I’m supportive of mineral, gas and oil exploration and extraction. I think there are appropriate places and circumstances to utilize our natural resources. There are private and public lands that in my mind are fair game for mining, and other lands where they should absolutely not be permitted. And there is a lot of land in that gray area, where we need to think hard about whether it’s worth the environmental sacrifice to alter for the sake of energy development.
I puzzle over this issue of tar sands mining. Tar sands are a cousin to oil shale, the development of which in North Dakota and Canada has created an economic boon and resource supply. Tar sands, found in Utah, are close to the surface of the earth, so strip mining is the proposed mode of extraction. We have oil shale here too, but geologically it’s a bit different than the shale found up north. I’m not convinced it’s economically viable to produce oil from our shale. And I’m also not convinced it’s worth the environmental cost.
But back to the tar sands. U.S. Oil Sands, the Calgary-based company which plans to begin work on the mine early next year, estimates that it will produce 2,000 barrels of oil per day using new, environmentally sensitive methods that the company says will recycle nearly all the water and solvents used in their extraction project. Further, the company plans to use some new techniques to reduce water and energy use. There won’t be tailings ponds or releases of fluids into the watershed, the company claims. The football field-sized areas of activity will be dug about 150 feet into the ground, and reclamation work will be occurring just as soon as areas are mined out.
But all this information aside, the mining company’s plans won’t be measured against concerns brought by the environmental community, all because the appeals weren’t made in a timely manner. And why weren’t appeals made in a timely manner? Living Rivers says there wasn’t a public announcement by Utah regulators when the project’s permit was issued by the state. State law did not require public notice at that time, but the law has since changed.
In this ball game of environmental protection versus resource extraction, it might be time to look at the rule book. I’d like to hear a healthy dialogue that weighs the heart of the matter on both sides, which is what the Utah Supreme Court was supposed to do had they not thrown it out on a timeline technicality.
If state or federal governments are issuing sensitive permits, the public needs to know about them. Many environmental activists will oppose natural resource extraction in any form, and will not be willing to bargain at all. In this case the onus is now on U.S. Oil Sands to show us that the environmentalists’ concerns have little basis. I hope they’re up to the task. Much as I use energy, along with every member of this planet, I hope it can be extracted with minimal damage and that in the end these projects are worth their impacts.