SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - Students and concerned citizens from a variety of organizations including Utah Tar Sands Resistance, Mormons for Environmental Stewardship Alliance, Fossil Free U and the Revolutionary Students Union held a protest at a conference of the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy at the University of Utah here. The institute promotes use of tar sands, oil shale and coal. The protesters performed a mike-check, briefly interrupting the conference, and picketed for two hours outside.
Utah currently represents one of the largest sources of potentially useful tar sands in the United States. The state is mostly public land, and any attempt to utilize resources on a large scale must be publicly approved. Corporations hoping to profit from this polluting fuel have attempted repeatedly to gain access to these public lands and have made considerable progress. State legislators have repeatedly attempted to wrest control of public land from federal regulators, hoping to bypass potentially expensive environmental studies and further push development of these environmentally sensitive wild lands.
Many legislators and investors argue that the development of tar sands and oil shale will be a boon to the region, providing an influx of cash and work opportunities. But opponents say this ignores the many long-term consequences of such efforts.
The process necessary to derive usable fuel from tar sands or shale oil requires substantial energy for extraction, development of roads in many wild areas, massive water use and potential water pollution from industrial solvents, and the disastrous effects of the strip-mining necessary to acquire enough of the raw materials to make the processing profitable.
Utah is in one of the most arid regions of the United States, and water in the amounts required will have to be acquired at the expense of both local residents and the environment at large. In addition, many of Utah's rural residents rely on recreation, ranching and tourism for their livelihoods. Not many people are in a hurry to see strip-mined tar sands land, or fields of cooked and crushed gravel and scree from the massive rock-crushing operations of shale oil processing. Finally, many disagree with the very viability of the tar sands or shale oil in question.
An op-ed in the local Deseret News by energy analyst Randy Udall notes repeated attempts over the last 30 years to gain any energy from this area, all of which ended in failure. Udall notes that shale oil developments could take nearly a billion dollars to develop, and would require the same amount of water as nearly 750,000 households. Tons of rock would have to be put through an expensive process to obtain any value, and in the end, 90% of the materials would prove inert and useless.
Tar sands are little better, opponents say. Activist group Before It Starts said in a press release titled "Investors Beware" that tar sand resources in Utah are poor quality, producing a five-to-one ratio of waste to resource, and are in places that are difficult to exploit. Some of the processing would inevitably occur in refineries near Salt Lake City, which already has an atrocious air quality record with some of the worst pollutant levels in the nation.
Nonetheless, drawn by the heady aroma of profit and encouraged by the destructive success of operations in Canada, investors flock to the opportunity to gain in the short term at a terrible long-term cost. Often the federal government acts to facilitate these projects, resulting in serious conflict. At the end of the Bush administration in 2008 the Bureau of Land Management held a massive oil and gas land lease auction in an attempt to turn over control to interested corporations before a new administration could reverse policy, despite protests that environmental studies had been rushed. These leases allowed for drilling across a variety of pristine and picturesque public land sites, including some only a short ways away from national parks enjoyed by the public.
One protester, Tim DeChristopher, founder of the group Peaceful Uprising, undermined the bureau's dubious proceedings by falsely bidding for resource rights in an attempt to prevent their acquisition by the corporations. While DeChristopher was arrested and sentenced to 21 months in prison, his action brought attention to the BLM's disreputable land-lease actions, and a large number were overturned the following year by the Department of the Interior.
The struggle continues, as not all land-leases were overturned, and corporations like Estonia-based Enefit American Oil and Canadian Earth Energy collude with local companies like RedLeaf Resources and the local government in an effort to push forward the development plans. Public outcry has found a focus in groups like Utah Tar Sands Resistance, as well as in a wide variety of alternate organizations protesting the many negative effects to health and environment in the area.
Photo: Protesters at the University of Utah, May 7. Utah Tar Sands Resistance on Facebook.