Drill padsNatural Buttes gas field south of Vernal, Utah

Introduction

Oil sands and oil shale are complicated, combustible subjects.  This website assumes that you know a bit but want to learn more about unconventional oil in the Uinta Basin.  Nine videos follow this introduction, each six to twelve minutes long.  Through them, you’re invited to listen to people from industry, government, science, and the communities that stand to win or lose with development of Utah’s unconventional future.  They may not be people to whom you are accustomed to listening, but their ideas, aspirations, and warnings need to be heard.

Contents
          Oil Sands
          Oil Shale
          Governments
          People of the Book Cliffs
          Rocks
          Animals
          Air
          Water
          The Canadian Experience

 

The heart of the American West is being opened to energy development on a scale not seen in the past.  What do we − as citizens, job seekers, or as environmentalists − need to know if we are to be engaged in the process?

Sandstones and shale near Red Wash, southeast of Vernal, Utah

Sandstones and shale near Red Wash, southeast of Vernal, Utah

This website is not just about tar sands or fracking or climate change. This is about a landscape – the Uinta Basin.  Rocks, plants, and animals (including people) live here.  The basin covers almost 15,000 square miles of northeast Utah, an asymmetric bowl east of the Wasatch Mountains and south of the Uintas.  The low center is high desert, not quite 5,000 feet above sea level, covered by sagebrush or, in places, by nothing at all.  The southern rim gently climbs to piñon then aspen and fir.  The northern rim is more abrupt, rapidly rising a mile and a half toward Utah’s highest peaks.  The basin’s few towns − Duchesne, Roosevelt, Vernal − are strung like bare bulbs along Highway 40, but mostly this is open empty country.  Roads are poorly marked, likely as not to be dirt.  The dust you eat is from eighteen-wheel tankers carrying unknowable fluids, or from white dually pickups with oilfield racks on the back.

Drill pads in the Natural Buttes gas field

Drill pads in the Natural Buttes gas field

In the last sixty years, hard hats have become progressively more common in the basin than Stetsons.  Dairy farms and sheep pens have given way to drill rigs and rowdy bars.  The energy industry found modest plays of oil and gas here after World War II, but really hit its stride with the explosive growth of hydraulic fracturing − high-pressure injection of sand and chemical cocktails into wells that would otherwise have been sluggish or dry.  Ten years ago, fracking was considered “unconventional”; now it’s the norm.  Today the horizon has shifted, and unconventional energy now refers to oil sands and oil shale.  Both are plentiful in the Uinta Basin, and they have inspired a new oil play that could transform the basin and remake the West.

Bitumen-bearing sandstone within the Green River Formation; Book Cliffs near PR Springs.

Bitumen-bearing sandstone within the Green River Formation; Book Cliffs near PR Springs.

Oil sands?  Tar sands?  Tar is technically a residual product of burning coal, different in geologic origin and chemical structure from what is found in Utah’s sediments.  In Alberta, Canada, where unconventional oil is being harvested at scales that could soon rival Saudi Arabia’s energy fields, using the term “tar sands” is to risk provoking a barroom brawl.  Paradoxically, the geologic and regulatory literature in Utah usually refers to tar sands.  Not wishing to fan the flames of controversy, we will use the term oil sands.

Enefit American Oil’s White River mine site

Enefit American Oil’s White River mine site

Oil sands contain bitumen, the residual of hydrocarbons that at some point migrated through the Green River Formation, losing their volatile components along the way.  Oil shale isn’t oil at all; it contains an organic component called kerogen that has never been cooked or compressed enough to be converted to oil.  Releasing sticky bitumen from sandstone, or cooking kerogen to produce oil, requires energy.  Both processes are likely to release more carbon into the atmosphere than conventional oil from Texas or natural gas from North Dakota.

Retention pond, Natural Buttes gas field south of Vernal, Utah

Retention pond, Natural Buttes gas field south of Vernal, Utah

As the nation’s latest energy boom transforms the Uinta Basin, a rural landscape of ranches and farms is being swept away, replaced by more tanker trucks and dually pickups.  New oilfield roads race across the basin like ominous cracks across a frozen pond.  Companies in the Uinta Basin, energized by capital from Canada, Estonia, and France, are now on the verge of mining bitumen and kerogen at industrial scales.  The world has seen this industrialization before, most recently in the oil sands of Alberta.  Can we learn from the Canadian experience as development of vast deposits of unconventional oil begins here in Utah?

People of the Uinta Basin have complex desires and conflicting ambitions.  Each person deserves to be heard; each deserves our respect.  Topics on the table include economic opportunity, technologic advances, and environmental risks as well as cultural impacts.  The topics matter, and in discussing them, it’s not good enough to hide behind partial information or polarized opinions.  Development of unconventional oil has already introduced huge changes to the boreal forests of northern Alberta.  Utah now teeters on the verge of a similar transformation.  It’s important to raise questions whose answers will materially affect the future of this Western landscape.  Understandably, industries that are gearing up for development argue that the time for questions may have already passed, but some issues remain unresolved.

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This website gives voice to people in and of the Uinta Basin.  In the videos that follow, please listen to representatives of industry, government, science, and communities of the basin.

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Lake just below Burt and Christine DeLambert's ranch in Main Canyon, Utah

Videos

Oil Sands
The Uinta Basin holds an estimated 30 billion barrels of heavy oil. US Oil Sands, with leases on 32,000 acres of bitumen-bearing sandstone on the basin’s southern rim, is positioned to be the largest commercial oil sands producer in the United States.

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Oil Shale
It’s important to distinguish between oil sands and oil shale. Both are present in the Uinta Basin, but of the two, oil shale is by far more plentiful. The US Geological Survey estimates that, if fully exploited, there is enough oil shale in the basin to yield 1.32 trillion barrels of oil. Enefit American Oil owns and leases 32,000 acres where it plans to strip mine shale and produce 50,000 barrels of oil a day.

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Governments
County, state, federal, and tribal governments form an interlocking regulatory web that oversees both industrial development and environmental protection of lands within the Uinta Basin.

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People of the Book Cliffs
The Book Cliffs form the southern margin of the Uinta Basin. Unlike the remainder of the basin, drainages from the Book Cliffs all flow south toward the Upper Colorado River. A few hardy souls recreate in these canyons; even fewer live here.

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Rocks
The Uinta Basin was created fifty million years ago when this land between the mountains bowed down and filled with water. The lake was just warm and salty enough to encourage bacterial growth that now yields hydrocarbons like bitumen and kerogen.

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Life
Pronghorn, elk, bear, and mule deer are at home within the Uinta Basin. Its rivers have hosted native fish like the razorback sucker, Colorado pike minnow, bony tail and humpback chub. Threatened plant species like the Uinta Basin hookless cactus grow here and nowhere else.

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Air
Once pristine, the air of the Uinta Basin can now be smudged by dust or tainted by ozone. Industrial development within the basin will add to the burden of carbon in our atmosphere that is inextricably linked to a rapidly changing climate.

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Water
The Uinta Basin is dry land where water is of paramount importance. Industrial developments could withdraw or contaminate what little ground water is present. The Green and Colorado Rivers flow in and around the basin, too precious to be ignored.

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Canadian Experience
The pursuit of unconventional oil has already ripped across landscapes in northern Alberta. The resource and rock are somewhat different there than in Utah, but nonetheless, can we who are on the cusp of a similar industrial expansion learn anything from the Canadian experience?

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End Notes and Credits

Green River south of Vernal, Utah

Uinta Basin – An Unconventional Future
Text and photos © Michael Collier, 2014
Underwriting by Temper of the Times Foundation
Hosting by the Landscape Conservation Initiative  (www.lci.nau.edu)

 

Interviews

Oil Sands

  • Cameron Todd − CEO, US Oil Sands

Oil Shale

  • Rikki Hrenko – CEO, Enefit American Oil

Governments

  • Mike McKee – Commissioner, Uintah County
  • Mike Stiewig – Vernal field manager, BLM
  • William Stokes – Mineral resource specialist, SITLA
  • Paul Baker – Reclamation biologist, Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining
  • Ron Wopsock – Ute Business Committee

People of the Book Cliffs

  • Wolf Bennett – Outward Bound Instructor
  • Bob Holloway – Home owner, Thompson Canyon
  • Matt Boone – Bear hunter, Sego Canyon
  • Casey Phillips – Elk hunter, East Canyon
  • Lee Elmgreen – Rancher, Westwater Canyon

Rocks

  • Michael Vanden Berg – Geologist, Utah Geological Survey

Animals

  • Dax Mangus – Wildlife biologist, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • Dan Schaad – Ouray Refuge Manager, US F&WS

Air

  • Seth Lyman – Utah State University, Vernal

Water

  • John Weisheit – Conservation director, Living Rivers
  • William Johnson – Professor, Geology Dept, University of Utah
  • Andrew Dutson – Engineer, Utah Division of Water Rights
  • Burt DeLambert – Rancher, Main Canyon

The Canadian Experience

  • Rob Dubuc – Attorney, Western Resource Advocates

 

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Michael Collier (www.michaelcollierphoto.com) received a BS in geology at Northern Arizona University, MS in structural geology at Stanford, and MD from the University of Arizona.  Collier has been writing and publishing about people and landscapes of the West since 1970.  He received the 1997 USGS Shoemaker Communication Award, the 2000 National Park Service Director’s Award, and the 2005 American Geosciences Institute’s Public Contribution to Geosciences Award.  His website www.oilsandsexperience.com examines Alberta’s experience with unconventional oil.