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Know the West

Utah tar sands project gets key go ahead


One Canadian company's plan to extract oil from Utah's tar sands just took a big step forward. 

In 2005, U.S. Oil Sands, a small Canadian company already active in Alberta, proposed a project to squeeze oil out of tar sands on Utah's Tavaputs Plateau 

On Wednesday, the Utah Water Quality Board voted 9-2 to uphold the state Division of Water Quality's decision to let the company's proposed tar sands mine go ahead without a groundwater pollution permit. 

Living Rivers, a nonprofit environmental group based in Moab that has argued the project will pollute groundwater, challenged DWQ's original approval of the project sans pollution permit. They wanted U.S. Oil Sands to do a full groundwater analysis.  

The Water Quality Board, however, agrees that the area's groundwater is too deep in the ground to be polluted by any dirty runoff. Living Rivers and legal ally Western Resource Advocates say they will likely challenge the decision in Utah's courts.  

As High Country News' contributing editor Jeremy Miller reported this summer, the state's prodigious bitumen deposits, the largest in the U.S., hold between 12 and 30 billion barrels of oil. In hopes of tapping those fossil fuel riches, the company has been wending its way through the state's permit process.  This latest decision is a big win for them. 

Curiously, as Miller notes in his piece, the company plans to get the water it will use in the project (tar sands extraction is a water-intensive process) from the groundwater lying deep beneath its project site. 

Apparently the groundwater is not to deep to drill into as a water source, but still deep enough to be immune from pollution runoff. 

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.