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Think only Canadians need to worry about tar sands extraction? Think again.
In October, U.S. Oil Sands, Inc. joined Kentucky-based Arrakis Oil Recovery as the second company to receive a permit to produce U.S. tar sands. The Utah Water Quality Board gave U.S. Oil Sands a permit to extract 2,000 barrels of oil per day from Utah's tar sands reserves.
Despite its name, U.S. Oil Sands is actually a Canadian outfit based in Calgary, Alberta. The company currently holds leases on just over 32,000 acres in Utah's Uintah Basin. U.S. Oil Sands' mining will take place at PR Spring on the Colorado Plateau in an area called the Bookcliffs, which straddles the Utah/Colorado border.
U.S. Oil Sands' water-and-energy-intensive extraction process involves first digging up congealed tar sands, then crushing them to reduce their size. The company then mixes the crushed sand with large amounts of hot water (at a temperature of 122-176°F) to loosen up and liquefy the tarry, oil-containing residue and separating it from the sand.
Next, coarse solids sink, are subsequently removed and considered waste tailings. Air is then bubbled through the remaining water-oil mixture, which makes the oil float to the top in what's referred to as “bitumen froth,” in industry lingo. The froth is then deaerated, meaning all the air molecules are removed.
When it finally gets to this point in the production process, the mixture is still so thick it can't be pumped through pipelines.
Thus, it undergoes even more treatment with a hydrocarbon solvent to reduce the viscosity and density of the sludge. Wastes from the process — which contain water contaminated with chemicals and unrecoverable oils — are called “middlings” and will be disposed of in surface tailings ponds and kept long-term.
Frank Giustra - key power broker and close colleague of former President Bill Clinton - has taken a seat on the Board of Directors of U.S. Oil Sands, an Alberta-based company aiming to develop tar sands deposits in Utah's Uintah Basin. **UPDATE: Although he was named a prospective appointee to the Board, Mr. Giustra ultimately declined the position, citing “other commitments.”**
U.S. Oil Sands - in naming several new members to its Board - also announced it has received $80 million in “strategic financing” from Blue Pacific Investments Group Ltd., Anchorage Capital Group, L.L.C. and Spitfire Ventures, LLC.
The funding will help get the ball rolling on “tar sands south,” a miniature but increasingly controversial version of its big brother to the north, the Alberta tar sands. Giustra will likely help in opening the right doors for tar sands industry interests in the United States.
Giusta is best known for his work in the worlds of uranium mining and minerals mining, though he has dabbled in the Alberta tar sands finance world once before, lending upwards of $20 million in capital to Excelsior Energy. He serves as CEO and President of Fiore Financial Corporation.
Founder and Director of the Radcliffe Foundation and Co-Director of the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (formerly known as the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative), Frank Giustra has maintained close ties with Bill Clinton since 2005.
The Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative is an arm of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation (the Clinton Foundation). Giustra sits on the Clinton Foundation's Board of Trustees.
While many environmental advocates urge consumers to buy local, in this case, local isn't always better. While the Canadian tar sands are more notorious, developments here in the US are moving forward as local governments issue more permits to allow companies to start mining.
More than half of the U.S. tar sands resources in active play are in Utah. As DeSmog reported previously, the first US tar sands mine was approved in Utah back in October 2012, with plans to seek a few more permits and begin construction in 2013. After the Utah Water Quality Board approved the permit, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining also gave the operation the green light to move forward with production.
Since then, US Oil Sands Inc., the company developing the land for extraction, is marching forward. According to exploratory analysis, the 5,930 acres under lease contain approximately 184.3 million barrels of oil. That's not including over 26,000 acres that weren't evaluated in the report.
“Based on the [report] and the positive results provided by our exploratory drilling program, we are able to credibly showcase the potential our Utah properties hold for the company and demonstrate that we are one step closer to execution of the first phase of development of PR Spring,” announced CEO Cameron Todd in an earlier report, “…detailed pit planning is now underway in these locations.”
The company plans to be commercially operational by 2014.
Several years ago, Utah public health officials realized they had a big problem on their hands – one with national implications as other states were racing to increase oil and gas drilling. Smog levels in the state’s rural Uintah basin were rivaling those found in Los Angeles or Houston on their worst days.
The culprit, an EPA report concluded earlier this year: oil and gas operations. The industry was responsible for roughly 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin, which mixed under sunlight with nitrogen oxides – at least 57% of which also came from oil and gas development – to form the choking smog, so thick that the nearby Salt Lake City airport was forced to divert flights when the smog was at its worst.
But the haze over the Uintah isn’t the most dangerous air pollutant coming from the oil and gas fields in the valley.
A string of studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the core ingredient in natural gas, methane, is leaking at rates far higher than previously suspected. This methane has climate change impacts that, on a pound-for-pound basis, will be far more powerful over the next two decades than the carbon dioxide emissions that have been the focus of most climate change discussions.
The smog problem is especially pronounced in Utah. But a growing body of research nationwide suggests that methane is leaking from the natural gas industry at levels far higher than previously known.
In Washington D.C., pressure is mounting to ignore these methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says there is no time to waste. We must proceed immediately with the “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy they say, code for “drill baby drill”. This pressure is coming not only from the natural gas industry itself, but also from a surprising ally: the Environmental Defense Fund, which has supported natural gas development as a “bridge” from coal to renewables.
This position has drawn renewed accusations that the EDF is “greenwashing” for the natural gas industry.
Climate activist Tim DeChristopher is set to be released from prison on Earth Day, this Sunday April 21st, since being incarcerated on July 26, 2011.
Tim DeChristopher created quite a ripple in the activist community when he tried to buy millions of dollars of land in December of 2008 in order to stop the oil and gas industry from snatching it up at an illegitimate auction put on by the outgoing Bush administration. While the incoming Obama administration cancelled the auction, Tim was caught in the fallout, while the rest of the auctioneers presumably roam free.
He was slapped with two federal felony charges - one for making false statements and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.
Tim's trial was pushed back 6 times over two years and was fraught with maddening plot twists. The judge refused to let Tim use the Necessity Defense or let the jury know crucial facts, including that the auction was illegal. Tim was also prohibited from testifying on how he acted on moral convictions relating to climate change.
His prison term was no less eventful. During March of last year, Tim was thrown in isolated confinement for two and a half weeks after writing correspondence that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) deemed potentially harmful because it contained the word “threat.” It turned out he was only “threatening” to return a potential legal fund donation from a company whose ethics weren't aligned with his own.
Rumors went around that an unnamed Congressman had put in the order, but investigations never figured out if it was true.
Last week, Huffington Post reported a story about the Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining’s ridiculous Earth Day Poster Contest. You know, the one where elementary school students were invited to submit posters around the theme, “Where Would WE Be Without Oil, Gas & Mining?”
Seeing as this contest was created by a state agency, every public school in Utah was given this flyer (PDF) with instructions for how to participate.
Fortunately, it’s up to every school to decide whether to participate, and at least some Utahns are outraged at the idea. Colby Poulson, a parent in Farmington, called the contest “propaganda” in a letter to the Salt Lake City Tribune.
Why is the state backing an “Earth Day” contest that celebrates fossil fuels, while completely ignoring the adverse effects that their use and extraction can too often have on our air quality, water quality, public lands and the other organisms we share the world with? Shouldn’t Earth Day be about championing things that can help reverse the negative impact of our dependence on fossil fuels?
Frankly, I’m disgusted that the state is backing propaganda like this in our schools.
On July 26, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court** ruled PA Act 13 unconstitutional.*** The bill would have stripped away local zoning laws, eliminated the legal concept of a Home Rule Charter, limited private property rights, and in the process, completely disempowered town, city, municipal and county governments, particularly when it comes to shale gas development.
The Court ruled that Act 13 “…violates substantive due process because it does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of neighborhoods and makes irrational classifications – irrational because it requires municipalities to allow all zones, drilling operations and impoundments, gas compressor stations, storage and use of explosives in all zoning districts, and applies industrial criteria to restrictions on height of structures, screening and fencing, lighting and noise.”
“It’s absolutely crushing of local self-government,” Ben Price, project director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), told Rosenfeld. “It’s a complete capitulation of the rights of the people and their right to self-government. They are handing it over to the industry to let them govern us. It is the corporate state. That is how we look at it.”
Where could the idea for such a bill come from in the first place? Rosenfeld pointed to the oil and gas industry in his piece.
That's half of the answer. Pennsylvania is the epicenter of the ongoing fracking boom in the United States, and by and large, is a state seemingly bought off by the oil and gas industry.
The other half of the question left unanswered, though, is who do oil and gas industry lobbyists feed anti-democratic, state-level legislation to?
The answer, in a word: ALEC.
Insanity, though, doesn't serve as a hinderance for deeply entrenched and powerful fossil fuel interests.
Oil shale, also known as kerogen, should not be confused with shale gas or shale oil, two fossil fuels best known from Josh Fox's “Gasland.” As explained in a report by the Checks and Balances Project,
Oil shale itself is a misnomer. It is actually rock containing an organic substance called kerogen. The rocks haven’t been in the ground for enough time or under enough pressure to become oil. Oil companies need to recreate geological forces to produce any energy from it. Ideas for developing oil shale have included baking acres of land at 700 degrees for three to four years and even detonating an atomic bomb underground.
The really “insane” part of the equation: oil shale production, which has yet to begin, would be ecologically destructive to the extreme.
“Because oil shale is a rock, commercial production would release 25% to 75% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil,” wrote the Western Resource Advocates. Furthermore, like tar sands production and shale oil/gas production, oil shale production is a water-intensive process.
Adding insult to injury, in the 100 years of attempted commercial production of oil shale, the fossil fuel industry has yet to seal the deal, motivating an April 2012 report by Checks and Balances titled “A Century of Failure.”
Think that that dirtiest oil on the planet is only found up in Alberta? You might be surprised then to hear that there are tar sands deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, much of which are on public lands.
While none of the American tar sands deposits are actively being developed yet, energy companies are frantically working to raise funds, secure approvals, and start extracting.
To help you better understand the state of tar sands development in the U.S., here’s a primer.
Where are the American tar sands?
The Bureau of Land Management estimates that there are between 12-19 billion barrels of tar sands oil, mostly in Eastern Utah, though not all of that would be recoverable.
This map from the Utah Geologic Survey shows all of the state’s tar sands.