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Oil and water

Published September 4, 2012 1:05 am

Tar mine needs more oversight
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Utah administrative law judge has bought the argument of a tar sands mining company that there's no need to protect or monitor the water that might be affected by a proposed operation in the Book Cliffs area of the state because, well, there isn't any.

Water, that is.

It is a frighteningly shortsighted decision.

There are few places on Earth where there is no water. (We're not even completely sure yet that there isn't any on Mars, for goodness' sake.) And even if the amount of water to be found most of the time in the area targeted by a Canadian-based company that is still called U.S. Oil Sands is minuscule, the admitted fact of the matter is that the miners are going to bring some.

A selling point of the method that U.S. Oil Sands brags about is that, rather than using a witch's brew of scary-sounding chemicals to free the petroleum precursor from the rocks and sand between Moab and Vernal, the company uses a much more benign process that it describes as "citrus based." Lemon juice on steroids.

But that's a liquid. And that liquid, and the substances it liberates from the mineral base, are likely to find their way into the ground, into the (usually dry) creeks and, eventually, into the watershed that leads to the Colorado River. And that river is the source of water — and thus of life — for most of the American Southwest, all the way to California.

The intent of the corporation that is seeking the permit may very well be to capture all the distillate that is produced, if for no other reason than to make sure none of the precious tar is lost. After all, the site, on land to be leased from the Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration, is only expected to produce some 2,000 barrels of oil a day. And that's such a small amount that allowing any of it to seep away would not be in the mine's best interest.

But, then, it wasn't in BP's best interest for the Deepwater Horizon to blow up, either.

Even if Administrative Law Judge Sandra Allen is correct in her view that water is extremely scarce in the area of the proposed mine, the fact that the company isn't even being required to place monitoring equipment in areas where water could be, and satisfy itself and state regulators that no pollution is seeping away from the site, is far too trusting.

There are other administrative hoops that the miners must jump through before they can start production on the site, and environmental advocates are mulling a lawsuit. Somebody, somewhere, needs to give this project a lot more thought. And require a lot more precautions.