The Nation's First Oil Sands Mine Moves Forward in Utah

The Utah Division of Water Quality voted 9-2 to allow the U.S. Oil Sands company to begin commercial mining for oil shale bitumen, a thick clay-like substance, which will be the first of its kind in the U.S. The agency review was requested by two opposing environmental groups  after a previous ruling was made by the agency to allow the 213 acre project to move forward in eastern Utah without a water pollution or groundwater monitoring permit. Observers now expect the decision to be taken on in the courts by the project opponents.

The Department of Energy has estimated that the U.S. has 60 to 80 billion barrels worth of oil sands reserves, with roughly 11 billion that can be technically recovered. The oil sands, or bitumen, is a heavy hydrocarbon that is a mixture of clays, oil, sand, and water which has a similar appearance to asphalt. When mined and processed, oil sands can be turned into synthetic crude oil and used for a myriad of applications including jet fuel and other petroleum products.

Utah regulators initially determined that the proposed site by U.S. Oil Sands did not need to obtain water impact or groundwater monitoring permits because the arid location only receives approximately 12 inches of rain per year, and no physical groundwater could be found where mining activities were planned. The recent decision by the Water Quality board affirms an opinion issued by an administrative law judge that any potential impacts to groundwater would at most be de minimis. Officials with the Water Quality board noted, however, its authority to conduct more on-site inspections of the project following heavy rains or snowfall as well as monitoring of waste sites once operations commenced.

The two environmental groups bringing the challenge, Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, strongly disagreed with the regulators' decision and argued that Utah's definition of groundwater is too vague and its application of what truly constitutes a harmful impact to water resources is misapplied. In a statement to the Associated Press featured in several news articles, Living Rivers attorney Rob Dubuc said, "This mine is the first of its kind...Nobody really knows what the impacts will be. This is not the time to rush ahead without knowing what we're doing."

Once operations begin at the site, the company expects more than 2,000 barrels of oil will be produced next year and could expand much larger as more bitumen is mined.