Direct Action Shuts Down First US Tar Sands Mine in Utah

The fate of tar sands development could shift to a potentially precedent-setting legal battle in Utah.

A coalition of conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and others, have filed a 253-page “request for agency action” urging the Utah Department of Air Quality to revoke its June 21 approval of a new oil refinery in Green River, Utah. The refinery is planned by the Calgary-based U.S. Tar Sands.

Assuming the agency refuses to revoke the permit, the next step would be legal action in various courts. The group’s challenge is based on UDAQ’s approval of the plant over several alleged violations of the Utah Air Conservation Act. The challenge was submitted to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and will be heard by an administrative law judge, and potentially, the Utah Supreme Court.

In addition to condemning the UDAQ decision, the coalition contends that the introduction of oil shale mining and refining would adversely affect the region’s air quality along with the fragile Colorado River Basin Green River Formation ecosystem. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that between 353 billion and 1.146 trillion barrels of oil in the Green River Formation “have a high potential for development,” which is 2-7 times as much as Alberta’s 170 billion barrels targeted by the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The public needs to understand that the Colorado River Basin’s carbon bomb dwarfs Alberta’s,” said Taylor McKinnon, director of energy with Grand Canyon Trust. “In addition to polluting Utah’s already-dirty air, this refinery is another step toward massive strip mining, greenhouse gas emissions and Colorado River drying.”

Beyond concerns over the Utah environment, coalition members expressed fears about impacts on tourism and, more significantly, the region’s water supply. Breaking the hard shale sediment requires a continuous supply of water: for each barrel of oil, several barrels of water are used.

This process would require the siphoning of “water from Utah’s lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers at a time when the West’s water supplies are tightening and competition for Utah’s remaining allocations are causing cities such as St. George to plan a 130-mile water pipeline from Lake Powell to meet growing demands,” according to Western Resource Advocates (WRA), a nonprofit, environmental law and policy organization.

Several days after the coalition’s action in Utah, members sued the Bureau of Land Management in federal district court in Colorado for allocating more than 800,000 acres of federal public land to climate-warming oil shale and tar sands development “without undertaking formal consultation to protect endangered species.”

“This citizen intervention is necessary because the Department of Interior is sending mixed messages to the public. On one day, the administration issues a statement that the Colorado River’s critical water supply will be protected for people and habitat, and then on another day they announce the most carbon-intensive mining practice on the planet can move forward,” said John Weisheit, conservation director with Living Rivers. “The two programs are not mutually beneficial. Interior has to protect the Colorado River, there is no other choice.”

So the tar sands battle is not just about Keystone XL, it’s about protecting a huge and fragile ecosystem in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. It’s a battle well and truly joined.