Imminent tar sands mine incites civil disobedience in Utah


Two years ago, HCN contributing editor Jeremy Miller asked if Utah's tar sands deposits could transform the Beehive State into the Alberta of the high desert. Jeremy's story focused on a mine proposed by U.S. Oil Sands, a Canadian company, in the Book Cliffs south of Vernal. It's long been known that eastern Utah's geological innards are layered with bitumen, the thick, oily substance that is mined in the Canadian tar sands, and then refined into gasoline. The "natural asphalt" has been tapped in the past to patch roads. But Utah's geology made it more complicated -- and less economical -- to mine for eventual use in gas tanks. Only recently, with oil prices around $100 a barrel, has momentum built for commercially viable tar sands mines in Utah.

As you might expect, the prospect of a domestic tar sands mine was not welcomed by environmentalists. "If this thing takes off," John Weisheit of Living Rivers, a Moab-based environmental group told Jeremy, "you can bet we'll be chaining ourselves to bulldozers."

With permits and investors in place, this thing is now taking off. U.S. Oil Sands is beginning to clear ground for a processing plant, with construction expected to follow soon on the mine. As promised, environmentalists are committing acts of civil disobedience to try to stop it. Twenty-one protesters were arrested in late July after some climbed a fence around the company's leased land and chained themselves to heavy equipment.

Civil disobedience has lately been enjoying a resurgence in the environmental movement, thanks to a lack of satisfactory momentum behind carbon-cutting policies at the national level. Much of it has centered around Canada's tar sands, via opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian crude to U.S. refineries. High-profile environmental leaders such as Bill McKibben, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's top man, were arrested for tying themselves to the gates of the White House to protest the pipeline. It was the first act of civil disobedience the Sierra Club had officially sanctioned in its entire history.

Are these shows of resistance likely to have any effect? It's hard to say whether protests and arrests have helped move the needle since the Obama Administration still hasn't issued a final decision on Keystone XL. But many environmentalists believe opposition to the pipeline from farmers and ranchers in Nebraska is far more likely to tip the balance. In Utah, it's difficult to imagine the protests could turn a political tide rushing forcefully toward development. And in general, acts of civil disobedience within the environmental movement have often been more symbolic than game changing, temporarily delaying development or extractive industry but rarely stopping it altogether. (The tree-sits and bulldozer-blocking that resulted in the protection of ancient redwoods in northern California's Headwaters Forest in 1999 is one notable recent exception.)

So why the surge of activism around tar sands?

It could be because these fights couldn't be easily won the usual way -- in the courts. Opposing the Keystone XL pipeline is a way for Americans to exert leverage over the expanding development of Canada's tar sands, but the U.S. State Department, which will have to approve or reject the pipeline since it crosses an international border, has a great deal of latitude in judging whether the project is or isn't in the "national interest."

In Utah, approval of U.S. Oil Sands' mining permits has been difficult to litigate because the planned mine lies on School and Institutional Trust Lands (SITLA). These state-owned lands have a mandate to be managed to make money for schools, so they're development friendly by design. The process of opening a mine on school trust land, explains attorney Rob Dubuc, of Western Resource Advocates, is not that much different than it would be on private land.

"It’s not the same as if it were a state park, or the Great Salt Lake, which is held in public trust," says Dubuc. "If the state says, we want (a company) to drain the lake and drill for whatever, as citizens we can say, this is our resource, and you can’t do that. Same thing with federal lands. With private land, you don’t have a say. The only thing you have a say about is if it impacts you in some way outside the confines on that property. If it’s going to contaminate your groundwater, then you have a say. SITLA is no different from private land in that respect."

With Living Rivers as his client, Dubuc has sued over the state Division of Water Quality's decision to allow Utah's first tar sands mine to proceed without a groundwater permit, expecting the mine's impact on groundwater quality to be negligible. Dubuc argues that groundwater contamination at the mine site is likely, and a permit as well as ongoing monitoring for contamination should have been required. So far, the lawsuit has come up short, though one appeal is still pending.

"From a policy perspective, this is absolutely the wrong decision to make," says Dubuc. "We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel to feed our habit for petroleum products. But can you stop this? It’s not federal land, we don’t have (the National Environmental Policy Act). It’s a big hurdle legally. I think that these projects are moving forward on state land because that’s the path of least resistance."

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor to High Country News, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She tweets @callycarswell.

Video of the recent protest at a planned Utah tar sands mine licensed under Creative Commons from Utah Tar Sands Resistance.

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