(EnviroNews Utah) – Tar sands, oil sands, asphalt, and bituminous sands. These names all represent the same type of fossil fuel, a fossil fuel so difficult and energy intensive to mine and process that past attempts to harness its dirty energy in the United States have resulted in bankrupt companies and abandoned test sites that have scarred the land with barren eyesores without a plan for recovery or restoration.
The massive Athabasca strip mine in Alberta, Canada has put tar sands on the map in the last few years via the mounting pressure surrounding President Obama’s upcoming decision on the fourth and final leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline that, if approved, will serve to open the flood gates for poisonous and carbon-loaded bitumen crude on an unprecedented scale. It is also known that much, if not all of the product moved through KXL is set to be sold abroad to countries such as China, leaving the U.S. holding the bag in what is now being called the “All Risk, No Reward” campaign.
Despite all of the recent heat surrounding the simply massive Alberta oil sands conundrum, plans to strip the land of all life in pursuit of even more of these deadly bituminous sands quietly continue, largely under the radar of the mainstream media. But this isn’t the everyday yukky stuff from Canada that you’re used to. Rather, these burnable rocks are set to be plundered right from your backyard — at least if you live in the Western United States.
In a stunning move, the BLM has opened approximately 850,000 acres for exploration and development of the technique, a technique that is so riddled with carbon emissions that world-leading climate scientist James Hansen, formerly of NASA, has been sounding the alarm, warning that it will be “game over for the climate” if these dirty extraction plans are realized.
A little-known tar scar in eastern Utah is set to add fuel to the global warming fire, benefitting a few fat cats at the expense of all living things.
This is the PR Springs tar sands test site of a Canada-based company that carries the sneaky little name of U.S. Oil Sands. The fiscally troubled company is doing everything in its power to strip mine bitumen from a pristine and diverse high desert eco-system, but the company will not tell you that.
When I first heard of this project at a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) meeting in Salt Lake City, company officials claimed that there was “NOTHING” at PR Springs, not even water, despite its name.
At first, on the way up to the extremely remote location, that seems to be true. There is little besides sage brush to encourage an outing to this wilderness area. However, as one continues up the road, a purported $3 million per mile project that is not guaranteed to provide any economic benefit to the state, one begins to notice that the landscape gradually transforms with elevation to majestic and beautiful high desert plateaus, with pines, aspen and wildflowers all around.
The wildlife that can be experienced here includes deer, elk, woodpeckers, turkeys, flickers, countless small and colorful birds and much, much more.
Ranchers use the land for cattle grazing during the summer months. The cattle roam free without fear of water poisoning and are rounded up before winter starts. How will these two traditionally Republican constituencies, that is, the oil industry and ranchers be able to coexist? And yes, there IS water at PR Springs.
As part of the Utah Tar Sands Resistance family outing during the solstice weekend, children, parents and friends gathered at the BLM campsite just a stone’s throw away from the U.S. Oil Sands experiment, with the intention of educating their children from top to bottom about squeezing oil out of rocks, while awakening them to the beauty and life truly at stake in the Utah tar pit battles.
Children explored the substances found at the site:
Is this poison?
It’s tar… on this rock.
Don’t touch it; it’s going to be everywhere.
One thing that oil and oil-waste operations have said repeatedly in cases of on-site surface and groundwater contamination is, “the water was bad when we got here.” Well, seven year-old Sam and nine year-old Isaac were on site to make sure that that never happens at PR Springs.
With water test kit in hand, these two youngsters took several samples and tested for many different pollutants, as well as taking samples to send off to a third party testing laboratory. Sam did a majority of the testing while Isaac wrote down the results:
Shad Engkilterra: And is it drinkable?
Sam: Yes, very drinkable.
Group member: That means that nitrate, nitrite, copper and chlorine are all in this water. This is good healthy water.
Engkilterra: You’ve learned a little bit about tars sands this weekend, right?
Sam and Isaac: “Uh-huh.” “Yeah”
Engkilterra: What do you think tar sands will do to this water?
Sam and Isaac: “Contaminate it.” “Destroy it.”
Contaminated groundwater isn’t the only concern of those opposed to the already-approved tar sands mine on the Tavaputs Plateau. Irreparable damage to the landscape, eco-system and environment is a grave matter that is still being insufficiently addressed.
At the new test site, Raphael Courdray, who is among those leading the charge against the development of Utah tar sands, helped the families present to understand what dirty fossil fuels are all about and why, in her view, they should be discontinued immediately.
Cordray: When people become aware of what’s at stake and see this place, it’s easy for people to see why this is a bad idea because of the water issues and then once they… if they extract all of these resources out here, they claim that we’ve got enough oil out here that we have more of a reserve than Saudi Arabia.”
Oilman X: Yep, it never worked before, I seriously doubt if it will work now. You have people like Orrin Hatch of Utah State nationwide touting there’s more oil than Saudi Arabia I think he was touting… him and other people touting that same story back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s talking about tar sands and oil shale all of these extremely unworkable, high water usage things that didn’t work. Let’s pick a different direction. Why not put all of that energy, money, time into the sun and into algae ponds, biodiesel, all of these other alternatives? And hey, there could be some serious technology out there, and is likely out there, that could vastly change the world overnight.”
Cordray: And once they… If they extract all of that they have to bring it to Salt Lake City to refine it, and that will cause more air pollution in Salt Lake City. We’ve already got the worst air in the nation so…
Group member: Would that be the refineries located where autism is one in 32 boys?
Group member: Oh that area. Cool.
Cordray: Woods Cross…
Group Member: Yeah, let’s do some more of that…
Cordray: North Salt Lake… And again, the uranium, I should mention about the uranium. Right after World War II, they, our government, wanted to know where all the uranium was in the whole world, and they did a lot of research, and it is well documented in the U.S. geological survey that this site at PR Springs does have uranium deposits that means when they take these rocks out and get the bitumen, then the uranium will become mobilized and come out into the air and possibly come out to attach to the gasoline and be present at the refinery and released into the air along with the other heavy metals.
Child: That means that there might be mercury and uranium in our exhaust also in the refineries pollutants, which could start making everything radioactive and also making everything potentially poisonous.
Group member: Frankly, I am not that concerned about their bank account.
Group member: Yeah that’s exactly right.
Shad Engkilterra: And how have the children been doing?
Cordray: I think the children have been having a great time. I think that they are really smart, and it’s been eye opening to myself to see how much they learn and listen and the activities that we’ve done have been really moving and they have a lot to teach the adults and so creating a time and a space for them to do things and express their own feelings about what’s happening and what they’ve heard and what they’ve seen out here has been really enlightening for the whole group.
Engkilterra: Some people might say that this subject is a little bit over their heads. What would you say to that?
Cordray: Well, I think that that’s really not true because children know that they need air and water… they need air to breathe, water to drink… We tell our children this all the time they know that they need to be healthy and they understand that if… that petroleum mining, tar stands mining, they can understand that that can cause toxins. They can understand that driving creates pollution, and it affects our air quality. It’s not over their heads. It’s very simple. You know, children can make sense of things that we’re making way too complicated.
Jessica Lee: Make a wall of people like you guys were talking about they’re not going to be able to bulldoze us because we’re in the way. Does that make sense?
Child: Will they try to unhook you or something?
Jessica Lee: They probably will try to unhook you, but there are things you can do. You can have something called lockbox, which means you like put our hands together and have a box between us so that they wouldn’t be able to unhook us because we’re hooked together.
Child: We demand you to call your boss this instant and tell them that children of Utah don’t like tar sands.
US Oil Sands employee: Well, I have to go to school. If I don’t work here then I can’t go to school. All of my bosses are gone. They went into Grand Junction.
Child: Well, call them.
US Oil Sands employee: I’m not going to call them. I’m sorry.
Child: Why not? Okay we’ll stay. We’re not leaving.
US Oil Sands employee: You’re not leaving? That’s fine’ I’m going to uh…
Child: You get a new job. Do you not like little squirrels? We’re worried about our water. Stop tar sands. You’re killing everything.
US Oil Sands employee: Okay.
Children in unison: STOP TAR SANDS!
Child: When you leave these things there, animals will come and like, do stuff in them. They might drink the bad water in them, and it might be getting into our food like hamburgers. If these cows are drinking this bad of water, we’ll have tar… we’ll be basically eating tar because they’re just drinking tar water which is really bad for us and the animals.
EnviroNews producer: Right to your dinner plate. Angus Beef you bet.
During the weekend, the children also participated in a direct-action training workshop where they learned the basics of peaceful protesting.
They were able to put their new skills to use after the class when they visited the newly installed man camp, where they asked the lone U.S. Oil Sands employee on site to come to dinner.
The PR Springs situation isn’t the first time that companies have tried to strip mine for bitumen in the United States. Behind me is the Leonard-Murphy “83” mine, an oil sands project that came online in the early ’80s.
Well, that little strip-mining experiment didn’t go so well. The company is long gone and bankrupt, and 30 years later, it has undergone very little in the way of environmental reclamation as black goo continually oozes forth from the abandoned mess, killing chipmunks, mice, birds and more, slowly making its way down the canyon toward precious water supplies that provide for thousands of people in several sizable oilfield communities in the Uintah Basin.
The Leonard Murphy site is so hazardous and vile, that upon walking into the ravine, I was forced to leave the area after less than 15 minutes. The horrendous fumes from the exposed black mess gave me a stuffy nose and caused my eyes to water and burn in pain.
Engkilterra: Here we are at the Leonard Murphy Mine where we were yesterday, and I couldn’t stand this place. There were three, well two dead chipmunks and a dead rat of some sort. You can see they’re clearly gone. There’s the remnants of one over there and here we have this poor little chipmunk dying in the tar sands. Now I am going to see if I can help him out and get him out of there. I don’t know if that will be good or bad for him, but, um, I mean I certainly wouldn’t want to sit in this toxic sludge, so let’s see if we can help him out.
C’mon, buddy… See it’s all gooey and tarry, I don’t think I can get him out of here…
C’mon, buddy, c’mon… Get him closer to the rocks… This is terrible… There you go. He’s still coated in tar. I mean… C’mon, buddy, c’mon.
I mean, he’s even just sticking to the grass pieces now. There we go, he’s getting off now. So I don’t know if that’s helpful; he still has tar all over his mouth and his face and his body, but I mean I just couldn’t leave him in there. I wish I had brought some solvent or something.
Let’s see if we can get that part off, that’s a big rocky part that was attached to his mouth, and it looks like his leg is broken here. Unfortunately, I think that is probably the end.
But this place, I mean, I can’t stay here very long. My eyes are already starting to water. They’re burning. My nose is starting to get stuffy, which happened yesterday I couldn’t spend more than 15 minutes, and there are some bigger tar pits down in the valley here, and if you watched, this tar flows all the way down through there and gets down into the valley and I am pretty sure that it is making its way down to the Green River or other water sources that people drink from and water their plants. What happens when you have contaminated water?
The world only has one percent water that’s usable for humans, and we’re doing this kind of thing to good, drinkable water when we don’t have the resource, especially not in a high desert ecology like this. Behind the cameraman there is a bunch of equipment that was left to rot. It still has the sludge on it.
Nature is known for its resiliency, yet in the absence of precious top-soil that once contained a microbial web of life that had evolved over thousands of years, this site still appears unable to support even rudimentary grasses and native vegetation.
Situated less than a mile from the U.S. Oil Sands test site, the Leonard Murphy project seems like an ancient energy play, but fast-forward 30 years with today’s $4 per gallon gas prices, and U.S. Oil Sands is attempting a play-by-play rerun of the same speculative and ecologically dangerous activities employed by those who took the same gamble many years ago.
Something that I personally, and others have heard repeatedly from U.S. Oil Sands representatives is: “There’s just NOTHING up there”.
With this assertion, it’s as if the villain from The Neverending Story has taken over the entire area and that there is no foliage, wildlife, or water at all. (Neverending story clip)
Some people have questioned the validity of the permitting process that requires a company to hire a supposedly neutral third party to perform an environmental impact assessment. Has anyone from the DEQ actually visited this already approved mining site? This is something that we and many others here in PR Springs have been wondering.
Companies have tried to develop tar sands in the past. Thirty years later, there are still environmental consequences and no one seems to be doing anything about it. We only have to look to our neighbors to the north in Canada, the same place where U.S. Oil Sands is from, to see an area nearly the size of Florida turned into a place that resembles the likes of Mordor from Middle Earth.
Considering the multitude of failed tar sands experiments in the ’70s and ’80s where test sites were largely abandoned and left in ruins, people here are wondering just what a bond would look like on the U.S. Oil Sands operation, and just what it would cover. All too often in the past, bankrupt oil-patch cowboys have ridden out of town as quickly as possible when they discovered that there was no pot of gold at the end of their black gooey rainbows.
The tenacious activists here in the state of Utah seem willing and ready to go to almost any non-violent extreme necessary to achieve their mission. This could be clearly witnessed last month in a meeting when Utah state BLM director Juan Palma was disrupted by some of these same activists in a direct-action protest for record books.
BLM Director, Juan Palma: Indeed we’re blessed with some, just unique landscapes here in the state of Utah. Landscapes that cannot be recreated. That is why there so many films are filmed here in the state of Utah…
Protestor 1: This meeting is a joke. This institute has no work for clean and secure energy.
Protestor 2: Investors consider this; the resistance is building. We are not going away; we are not going away. From Texas, Oklahoma, British Colombia, people have been saying no to tar sands.
Protestor 3: If there’s any investors in the room, I can address that this is an investment risk and this is just showing we’re not really going to play by the rules.
Crowd member: It’s not your turn to speak right now.
Protestor 3: So we’re not playing by the rules. They have not worked. I highly suggest you divest. If you don’t divest now, you are investing in a dying industry. This industry is no longer viable. It is a huge risk, and if you want to know what the risk is, you will have to look it up on social media. You will not find it in the SEC filings. Tar sands and tar shale companies like U.S. Oil Sands do not – do not represent the future. This combustion energy institution does not represent the future. It is a risk to my future. They’re the last gasps of a dying industry. If you are an investor in this room, please, raise your hands.
Lionel Trepanier: If you start mining here in Utah… We won’t let you lie to us… the few jobs that you supposedly create.. destroy thousands of jobs in the tourism industry that we actually rely on here in Utah.
Melanie Martin: Tar sands and tar shale mining will never be… at least not for many, many centuries. Our land and water should be held in common for the good of all not sold off for the profits of a few. Our rivers don’t belong to you and our lungs are not yours to fill with toxic dust… They belong to the people and all the generations to come.
Protestor 4: I want to come up here because my feeling is that this is the only way that our voices can be heard. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have access to political power. I don’t have access to media. Coming to meetings like this roomful of powerful people, politicians, business people, people with lots of money…
Director Palma: Well, thanks, folks, for that presentation…
Protestor 3: Dr. Palma, In all due respect, are you going to lease to U.S. Oil Sands, Red Leaf or Enefit Corporation? Are you going to lease our public and federal lands… I certainly hope not.
Director Palma: The BLM took a fresh look at what was on the table in 2008 and they…
A fresh look would look like wind energy and solar energy that doesn’t combust fossil fuels.
Protestor 5: We have the right to be here.
You’ve got kids? You’ve got grandkids…
Let’s take a deep breath.
Considering the overall history of bitumen extraction on U.S. soil, and going up against a company who has failed to land major investment dollars, and whose stock has been hovering somewhere around 10 cents with very low trading volume, it would seem that this group of committed activists will stand a good chance of achieving their goal of protecting the majestic lands of the Tavaputs Plateau for generations to come.
Group in unison: Save the Tavaputs!
Cordray: This is like a prime time for us to get people to know about this before it gets completely set up, all of the infrastructure isn’t built yet, and so I think it’s really the prime time for people in Utah to say, ‘Hell no. We don’t want this here. We don’t want…’ Because when you look at what’s happen in Canada, there’s no doubt that the cancer rates will increase. The effects on the community are well documented in Canada; the effects on the air, water, the animals in Canada near the tar sands mining area are no longer edible. People are having, are getting… the fishes in the water streams there have mutations, so we don’t have to guess or say this is a concern that this is going to happen. We can look at Canada and see it’s clear the devastation and the effects are well documented.
Now U.S. Oil Sands claims that they can process these Utah oil sands with 1.7 barrels of water per 1 barrel of oil, a statement that remains completely cloaked under the veil of “proprietary technology”, and is so far totally unproven to the public. Considering the past history of U.S. bitumen mining are we, the people, just to take their word for it?
U.S. Oil Sands also claims to possess techniques of “immediate reclamation” of the land here, which seems almost magical to people possessing even a basic understanding of soil science and microbiology. However, to date, we have seen only bitumen strip-mining tests at this site, and have seen no top soil replenishment, tree planting or any other environmental restoration tests of any kind.
Cordray: That would destroy this whole area, and their claims of remediation… It’s impossible, you can’t remediate something like this. Ecosystems like this take thousands of years just to develop, so we just don’t see how they can do it.
If there is one thing that most of us can understand, it is that man is incredibly skillful in the art of destruction and can easily demolish nearly anything in a fraction of the time that it takes for it to be created.
Take for example Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel built by men over the course of many years. How long would it take to bulldoze it to the ground? A day? A week?
And just how long would it take to rebuild the magnificent Sistine Chapel? Would it ever be what it once was, or would it be just a cheap imitation?
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that it would be easier to rebuild even the great Sistine Chapel, created by man, than it would be to rebuild an entire ecosystem, built by Mother Nature herself, over the course of millions of years.
For Environews Utah, I’m Shad Engkilterra.