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.
People of the Book Cliffs
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.