State water-quality regulators have released a draft permit for a Uinta Basin oil shale project after concluding it poses minimal threat to groundwater.
The proposed permit, which puts Utah a step closer to seeing its vast shale deposits mined on an industrial scale for the first time, would excuse Red Leaf Resources from full-scale groundwater monitoring because the company's process doesn't use water, the spent ore is dry and not much groundwater moves through the project area a finding environmentalists dispute.
"It's an untested process, and they are asking us to take their word that everything is going to be hunky-dory," said John Weisheit of Moab-based Living Rivers.
Subject to public comment through Sept. 27, the permit is among the final regulatory hurdles the company faces to build its early-production "capsule" on 17,000 acres it has leased from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. This underground oven will help determine whether Red Leaf's new process can extract oil in commercial quantities from the waxy petroleum precursor, known as kerogen, embedded in oil shale.
The company intends to dig a six-acre clay-lined pit, 200 feet deep, where it will construct the capsule from mined materials and bentonite. It will fill it with hydrocarbon-bearing shale to be heated for three months.
Mining regulators have already signaled they would sign off on this pilot project, but Red Leaf has agreed to seek the blessing of the Utah Division of Water Quality.
Environmentalists are concerned whether Red Leaf's capsule can contain petrochemicals, heavy metals and other contaminants after the ore has been heated to 725 degrees for months. Red Leaf's "retort" process vaporizes the kerogen in the rock but leaves about a third of the hydrocarbons behind.
If the capsule fails, pollution could leach from the ore and into the groundwater, contaminating aquifers and springs, according to Rob Dubuc, a lawyer with the eco-firm Western Resource Advocates.
"You need to properly monitor the results and you can't do that unless you have stations under and beside the capsule," he said. The draft permit, however, contends the project area is underlain with impermeable marlstone creating a barrier to water movement. But Dubuc says the geology here is more complex.
"You could drill 300 holes and not find water," he said. "Because of fissures, the water drains quickly; you wouldn't expect to find pools of groundwater here."
A company spokesman said testing has shown Red Leaf's capsule design to be impermeable and its retort process more environmentally benign than conventional retorts that use hotter temperatures.
"Red Leaf's technology was designed to address the environmental impacts of oil shale development," said Jeff Hartley, the company's director of governmental affairs.
The Salt Lake City firm recently secured funding from the French energy giant Total for the project. Total will put up 80 percent of the $400 million investment, while Red Leaf puts up the rest along with its proprietary EcoShale technology and the land, according to Hartley. The two firms will equally share the revenues from the estimated 800 million barrels Red Leaf hopes to produce over 20 years.
Red Leaf's process is much different than the retort proposed by Enefit American Oil, another firm developing Utah shale. Using a technology long used in Estonia to turn kerogen into oil, Enefit will retort its shale while moving it through a 900-degree vessel in a matter of hours.
Red Leaf's retort takes much longer, but the lower temperature leaves the spent ore more stable, so heavy metals will not migrate, and the resulting crude is of a higher grade requiring less refining, according to Hartley.
"The chemistry of the rock remains intact," Hartley said. "We figure that there will be 30 percent settling, and it will remain in a sealed container that is environmentally safe."
Red Leaf's mine is not far from PR Springs, where SITLA has leased land for development of tar sands another "unconventional" source of petroleum that requires mining and heavy processing. Groundwater concerns are likewise the subject of a legal challenge to U.S. Oil Sands' permit, now pending before the Utah Supreme Court.
Comment on Red Leaf project
P The public has until Sept. 27 to submit comments to the Utah Division of Water Quality on a draft permit for Red Leaf Resources' proposal to mine and process oil shale near the end of Seep Ridge in the Uinta Basin. Comments can be emailed to Mark Novak at email@example.com, or mailed to the division at 195 N. 1950 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84116.