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Know the West

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.

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.