The extraction of oil from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada has been a source of immense controversy as production continues to expand. The technique is known to be detrimental to the environment -- much more so than traditional oil well drilling -- and uses large amounts of water in the process. Now, thanks to the approval of John Baza, director of Utah's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, the U.S. is getting its first commercial oil sands project.
According to Alberta's government, their oil sands are the second largest source of oil in the world following Saudi Arabia. In 2008, Environmental Defence released a report condemning Alberta's tar sands as "the most destructive project on Earth," polluting water with toxic waste, destroying a large portion of the boreal forest, provoking acid rains, and drastically contributing to greenhouse gases in the environment.
According to a WWF report, oil sands extraction produces three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil production, and three barrels of water are required to produce a single barrel of oil. In Canada, this has reduced water levels in the Athabasca river to alarming levels.
For Utah, a state where water is already extremely scarce, the consequences could be immense. According to ItsGettingHotInHere.org, the proposed Utah oil sands project, operated by Canadian-based Earth Energy Resource Inc., would occupy 213 acres in eastern Utah within the Colorado River watershed, which supports 30 million people. "The total amount of oil produced by this mine over seven years of operation would cover just seven hours of American oil demand - a tiny blip on the radar. However, it will take millennia to restore the watershed they are about to destroy," John Weisheit, Colorado Riverkeeper and Conservation Director of Living Rivers, tells the blog.
In addition to the environmental impact, Western Resource Advocates alleges that degraded water and air quality from the Utah oil sands project, as well as destruction to the natural landscape, would harm Utah's recreation economy -- a $7.1 billion industry supporting 113,000 jobs.
Economist Jeffrey Rubin points out that in the case of Alberta's tar sands, unless consumers are willing to pay higher prices at the pump, the extraction of that oil isn't even economically sustainable.
According to the AP, Baza's approval of the Earth Energy's oil sands project in Utah can still be appealed to a state board.