It’s been more than three years since the Canadian company U.S. Oil Sands filed permit to extract tar sands in the remote and pristine Book Cliffs area in eastern Utah. For environmentalists this was something of a bellwether: the first time the controversial mining practice had been brought south of the US-Canada border. Some 184 million barrels of crude have been identified in Utah, and the Canadian mining company’s leadership has indicated an interest in expanding extraction around the state.

Book Cliffs of Utah

If you’re unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding tar sands (also known as oil sands or oil shale), it’s worth a quick read, or at least a look at some of the photos. Side effects of the invasive mining process have been well-documented, including the pollution of local water sources and the simultaneous, potentially-related rise of cancer rates in local communities. Images of the extraction area north of Calgary, Alberta depict vast strip mines and tailing ponds covering roughly 30 square miles of wilderness.

The process of extracting oil-rich bitumen from the ground and converting it to material suitable for refining is touted by proponents as the West’s cure for oil dependency. Canada has proven crude oil reserves roughly the size of England, the second largest in the world, just after Saudi Arabia. Detractors, however, point to the multiple environmental impacts, including destruction of boreal forest, one of the world’s primary carbon sinks, as evidence that tar sands extraction is a game-over scenario in the effort to mitigate global warming.

Canadian-based U.S. Oil Sands recently defended its expansion into Utah by citing a new process it hopes to fine-tune, utilizing a smaller footprint extraction area, along with less harmful chemical agents. In addition, a recent study by the University of Utah, which demonstrated potential for the mine in Book Cliffs to impact several water sources in the area, has led the Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining to require U.S. Oil Sands to present a plan for monitoring potential impact. That new requirement has the potential to curtail the industry’s advancement in the near future, but if history is any indication it will require more than science to hold back industrial progress.

By Brian Gruters

Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.