Feds fast-track plan to lease Uinta Basin lands for tar sands mining before Trump leaves office

Proposal triggers protests from environmentalists over climate change implications and unknown long-term impacts on public lands.

With the sun setting on the industry-friendly Trump administration and its “energy dominance” agenda for public lands, the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday proposed leasing 2,100 acres in Utah’s Uinta Basin to tar sands developers.

Environmentalists immediately sounded the alarm about the potential damage to the landscape, proximity to a popular mountain biking area and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

Utah holds millions of barrels of potential hydrocarbons on the aptly named Asphalt Ridge southwest of Vernal where tar sands development has been underway in fits and starts on state leases for years. Extracting crude oil from tarry bitumen is fraught with technical, environmental and economic challenges and the tar sands industry has yet to produce substantial quantities of oil in Utah, despite decades of trying.

But that hasn’t stopped the BLM from dusting off an old proposal to sell federal leases on Asphalt Ridge and putting it out for public comment in an apparent effort to fast-track a final decision before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in Jan. 20.

“We have been looking at this for a decade. The economics are impossible,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. “This is just a beacon of 11th-hour federal climate defiance from the Trump Administration that would never go anywhere for its disastrous economics. We are going to kill this plan for its climate irresponsibility on principle.”

As a candidate, Biden said he would put an end to leasing federal lands for oil, gas and coal because of these fossil fuels’ contribution to global climate disruption. In addition to excessive greenhouse gas emissions, tar sands extraction would also take a toll on the landscape because the ore must be strip-mined, then subjected to heavy industrial processes to yield liquid hydrocarbons that can then be refined into fuel.

Utah tar sands developers, such as Petroteq Energy and U.S. Oil Sands, use solvents to separate oil from ore in proprietary processes they say are environmentally benign. Environmentalists are skeptical of such claims.

“The rural West has so much to lose in the face of climate change — especially water,” said Megan Kelly, energy program manager at the Grand Canyon Trust nonprofit. “In an already dry region, carbon and water intensive tar sands mining couldn’t be further from the public interest.”

Added McKinnon: “It’s ludicrous to destroy public land and mine the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel in the face of a quickly worsening climate crisis in the Colorado River Basin.”

Utah state and county leaders, however, have been eager to see Utah’s vast deposits of unconventional energy resources, such as oil shale and tar sands, developed in the hopes of spurring economic development in Uintah County.

On Wednesday the BLM posted an updated environmental assessment of its Asphalt Ridge plan, giving the public only until Dec. 24 to submit comments. The assessment, which cost $264,000 to prepare, was initiated in response to a leasing application filed by a Utah company called Jones Lease Service, headed by Vern Jones of Centerville. Jones did not respond to a voicemail.

It is largely the same as one released in 2013, except for substantial additions related to the leases’ potential climate impacts. Environmentalists say it does not take a broad enough view to be useful.

“It’s still wholly inadequate. They don’t speak to the consequences of greenhouse gas pollution,” McKinnon said. “The bigger issue is what’s the effect not just for this project but BLM’s entire fossil fuel program.”

The proposed BLM leases are on six parcels intermingled with 16,200 acres of state trust land already under lease for tar sands development. The leases are also near an existing tar sands mine and processing plant on private land. Five of the lease parcels are on the east side of the ridge, and one is on the west side where it overlaps with the popular McCoy Flats mountain bike area, recently designated a national trail network.