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Why the U.S. Is Becoming Ground Zero For the Dirtiest Energy [With Slideshow]

The practice that has devastated parts of Canada is already underway in the U.S. and things could get a lot worse.

Editor’s Note: View the slideshow at the end.

A few years ago most Americans had never heard of tar sands. Now, thanks to mounting opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and a recent spill in Arkansas, vocabularies have grown, and so has a movement. Environmentalists have ignited a firestorm of protests over the pipeline, prompting rallies in DC and states across the country, resulting in high-profile arrests and media blitzes.

Keystone XL, which would allow more dirty oil from the environmentally ravished boreal forests of northern Alberta to flow through the U.S., has become a rallying call of sorts, a tangible way for environmentalists and other concerned residents to fight the elusive specter of climate change.

With all the focus on blocking the Obama administration’s approval of Keystone XL, the general public has mostly missed a project plugging along at 8,000 feet atop the Tavaputs Plateau in Eastern Utah (part of the ever-larger Colorado Plateau), and not far from beloved Arches and Canyonlands national parks. This fall a Canadian company named U.S Oil Sands (formerly Earth Energy Resources) leapt another legal hurdle on its multi-year journey to becoming the first commercial-scale tar sands mine in the U.S. Local and regional activists have been fighting the development for years, but it has somehow missed the national conversation, which is odd because the potential for tar sands and oil shale development in Utah could be massive.

“We don’t want the unconventional fuel industry to gain a foothold on the Colorado Plateau,” said Taylor McKinnon of Grand Canyon Trust. “The U.S. unconventional fuel carbon bomb is bigger than Alberta’s."

What’s at Stake

Tar sands (also known as oil sands) are rocks that have bitumen (a form of oil) mixed in with sand, clay and water. Tar sands are usually extracted by strip mining an area to remove the rock, then crushing it and using heat, water and chemicals to separate the oil, which is then diluted with other hydrocarbons in order to make it liquid enough to be transported to a refinery. (Sometimes in situ recovery is possible, where steam and chemicals are pumped into underground wells to enable the bitumen to come to the surface.) The process is energy- and water-intensive and the waste massive and dangerous, at least as it has been done in northern Alberta (see photos here).

Utah is the primary location of tar sands in the U.S., but oil shale abounds in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Oil shale is similar to tar sands, but when heated the rock releases kerogen, an oil-like substance. The presence of oil shale in the West is no secret—Ute Indians referred to it as “ rocks that burn.” What is new, however, is the economics of bringing these unconventional fuels to market and the green light from Washington.

The federal government has approved 132,100 acres of land available for tar sands development in Utah and another 687,000 acres in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado for oil shale. (This is a scaled-back number, thanks to pressure from environmental groups, from what was first proposed in the Bush administration’s 2005 Energy Policy Act.)

U.S. Oil Sands (which did not return an interview request) has already dug its shovel into part of 32,000 acres it has leased in the Tavaputs Plateau. The company started a 200-acre test mine and last October it received sign-off from the state to continue its project following approval from the Water Quality Division. The Division’s director, Walt Baker, believed the company didn’t need a groundwater pollution permit. “He concluded that there is no groundwater to pollute in the project site, around 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab,” reported Judy Fahys of the Salt Lake Tribune.

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