Why is an Estonian energy giant trying to revive failed Utah oil dreams?

There’s a new proposal to extract oil from shale, at great cost to the Colorado River Basin.

 

Ever since the 19th century, Westerners have been trying to extract oil from the vast oil shale deposits that lie trapped in rock under our public lands. Every attempt to do so has failed; in fact, so much money has been wasted that it has inspired the ironic tagline: “Oil shale, fuel of the future — always has been, always will be.”

But now, an Estonian energy giant is attempting to prove history wrong. It plans to construct a large oil shale mine and power plant in northeastern Utah, less than 10 miles from the Colorado border.

Commercial oil shale development will require immense financial investment, an unknown amount of Colorado River Basin water, the construction of multibillion-dollar power plants, strip-mining and pipelines crossing Western rivers. It will also create a hefty carbon footprint and exacerbate the climate-change impacts we’re already experiencing in the arid West. Given our dwindling water supplies, oil shale mining poses a real threat to the water supply of the Colorado River Basin.

But Eesti Energia, an Estonian state-owned energy company, hasn’t gotten the memo. Enefit American Oil, a subsidiary of Eesti, is in the process of exporting its Estonian oil shale-mining business to Utah and establishing what would be the first commercial oil shale operation in the United States. Enefit wants to build a 50,000-barrel-per-day oil shale-processing operation that will result in the strip-mining of over 13,000 acres of land near the White River. But first, Enefit is asking American taxpayers to subsidize its operations by providing a right-of-way utility corridor through publicly owned land.

Enefit, however, has refused to provide the Bureau of Land Management with basic details about the oil shale mine and power-plant project, or any of the associated environmental impacts. It is essentially asking for a blank check to jumpstart the development of one of the world’s dirtiest fuels. As a result, the BLM cannot accurately analyze or inform the American public about the land, water, carbon or wildlife impacts of Enefit’s oil shale project.

Despite Enefit’s refusal to provide baseline information, we know something about the impacts of oil shale mining in Estonia from the industry’s track record, both in Estonia and in the Colorado River Basin. Oil shale mining produces an immense amount of waste and associated water pollution. In 2007, the BLM estimated that a facility of the size proposed by Enefit would produce upwards of 23 million tons of spent-shale waste a year. This spent shale, transformed through the heating process, is laden with contaminants like arsenic, selenium and highly carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Water running through these waste piles would carry these contaminants into our already-threatened Western rivers.

The abandoned experimental Anvil Points oil shale test site in Colorado is a case in point. The discharge from oil shale waste piles has now contaminated nearby surface waters with arsenic levels that exceed Colorado Water Quality Standards. A mere 60 tons of spent shale waste at the Anvil Points site has thus become a significant environmental and financial liability for both Colorado and the federal government. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to remediate those waste piles and the surrounding area. Keep in mind that Enefit’s output of shale waste would dwarf the Anvil Points mounds.

Climate change is an equally critical issue. Enefit’s promotional materials admit that the carbon dioxide emissions from oil shale mining and processing make it far dirtier than current conventional fuel, or even tar sands. In terms of both carbon emissions and other pollution, oil shale is one of the dirtiest feedstocks on the planet. But Utah politicians expressly included the advancement of oil shale and tar sands mining in the state’s energy policy as well as the Uintah Basin Energy Zone, where oil shale and tar sands mining are among the highest management priorities.

To date, the BLM has sidestepped the environmental review process for Enefit’s project, saying that it cannot analyze oil shale waste impacts on water or the carbon footprint of the project without a development plan from the company. I think we can just cut to the chase: This massive oil-shale project makes no sense for Utah or the nation; it should not be allowed to go forward.

tappannemariah-color-credit-blakemccord-jpg
Blake McCord
Anne Mariah Tapp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is an attorney who directs the Grand Canyon Trust’s energy program in Utah.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...