The next energy boom to hit southeast Utah is “unconventional oil”

by Michael Collier

The Uinta Basin in northeast Utah is changing fast. Its lower reaches are already pockmarked with some 8,000 oil and gas wells, but so far, the top of the high southern rim -- the area known as the Book Cliffs -- has avoided much of the industrialization found to the north. But that could change, and soon.

The road from Vernal to the Book Cliffs Divide was dirt until just a few months ago; now, fresh pavement ends at the Uintah-Grand County line, not half a mile from the tiny PR Spring Mine. It won’t be tiny for long: US Oil Sands, a company based in Calgary, Canada, has permits to enlarge this mine’s pit from 200 acres to almost 6,000 acres. Beyond that, the company holds leases on 32,000 more acres nearby. It plans to strip-mine the Green River Formation from the surface down to 150 feet.

The rock contains bitumen, a hydrocarbon that’s hard as a hockey puck. The company will crush and mix the bitumen with a solvent called d-limonene, turning it into synthetic crude oil. Initially, US Oil Sands said it hopes to produce 2,000 barrels of oil a day; more later, if it’s lucky.

Last fall, I met a local named Casey and his cousins, all decked out in camouflage, high on the East Canyon Road. An elk head, still dripping, lay in the back of their all-terrain vehicle. Casey figured the antlers would measure 350 inches; maybe not trophy size, but still impressive. The family has lived in the Ashley Valley for decades, hunting this rim country for three generations.

I asked them if the bulldozers and crushers at PR Spring will affect their hunting. One of them looked at and then past me, and said, “Utah. We’re a state of opportunity.” I guess he didn’t feel the need to say more.

Boom-and-bust cycles have always buffeted the Uinta Basin. Fur trapping began in the 1820s and lasted until the beavers gave out. Then gilsonite and asphalt were mined in the 1920s. Traditional oil and gas exploration began in 1948, when Mike Dougan drilled his Ashley Valley No. 1 well, 10 miles southeast of Vernal.

For the next 60 years, oil and gas wells pumped millions of dollars into local coffers every year, but prospects predictably waxed and waned with the price of oil.

In the last few years, directional drilling has injected new life into those conventional wells, and hydraulic fracturing has jump-started the coalbed methane industry. More than 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas had been extracted by 2010.

Now, a new cycle looms on the horizon -- “unconventional” oil. Drawing on experience gained in Alberta and in Estonia, engineers working for US Oil Sands and Enefit American Oil are poised to strip-mine sandstone from the Green River Formation for bitumen and kerogen. One and a third trillion barrels of oil are there for the taking; maybe half can be recovered. That’s trillion, not billion.

Who are the people who would exploit these resources?  Businessmen in cowboy boots; women in blue jeans. Drillers from Texas and North Dakota. Who else is on the playing field? Politicians and government staffers. Ranchers huddled under the Book Cliffs Divide; hunters like Casey. Who’s asking questions? Scientists who want to know more about air and water in the basin. Biologists trying to protect mule deer, endangered fish and endemic cactus.  Atmospheric scientists around the world who worry about a changing climate.

Oil shale and sands are complicated, combustible topics in this corner of Utah. Where do we look when trying to learn about the technology, cultural implications and environmental consequences? Canadians have decades of experience with strip-mining the McMurray Formation for its bitumen.

When Shell, Suncor or Syncrude bring a new prospect into play in northern Alberta, the economics of scale dictate production that starts at 100,000 barrels a day.  Oil sands are never likely to be so big in Utah, but there is enough oil shale in the Uinta Basin to rival production in Alberta, perhaps even Saudi Arabia.

What can we learn from what’s already happened elsewhere? Can Utah benefit from the Canadian experience? These are big questions, and they need the kind of serious answers that go beyond sound bites and bumper stickers.

Michael Collier is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a geologist, writer, photographer and pilot. His observations about the Uinta Basin are posted at www.utah-oil.com, and about Alberta at www.oilsandsexperience.com.

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