Tar Sands Development Could Impact Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Glen Canyon NRA

Key: Red, designated tar sands areas; pink, national parks; blue, oil shale potential; orange, wilderness/wilderness study areas; light brown, national monuments. Source: SUWA

A natural resources juxtapositonal twist of fate has placed the spectacular Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in close proximity to an energy deposit whose extraction could sully the park units.

Even the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is eying the "tar sands" of Utah for commercial development, acknowledges their development would "completely displace all other uses of the land."

Tar and oil sands are a mixture of clay, water and heavy crude oil found in certain places in the world. The most famous area is in northern Alberta, Canada. It is estimated that the reserves in Utah alone hold 32 billion barrels of oil.

But extracting that oil is the tough part. And it's a water- and energy-intensive process at that.

In December, the BLM released a little-known document entitled the “Oil Shale and Tar Sands Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement." This 1,400-page document is notable not only for its length, but also for the BLM’s recognition of how great an impact tar sands development would have on the landscape.

Here's how Bobby Magill of the Grand Junction Sentinel put it:

If the BLM’s preferred tar sands development scenario goes forth, air in the region could be contaminated with carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, while air close to the site could be contaminated with benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, according to the report.

More than 100,000 acres of wilderness-quality land could be industrialized, construction of reservoirs would alter natural streamflow patterns, hydrocarbons and herbicides could cause “chronic or acute toxicity” in wildlife and habitat for 20 threatened or endangered species could be lost, the report says.

Under the proposed plan, BLM would make more than 400,000 acres of public land available for development, including land located adjacent to or near Glen Canyon, Canyonlands, Dinosaur National Monument, and Natural Bridges National Monument. More than 25,000 acres are adjacent to Canyonlands and Glen Canyon in the “Tar Sand Triangle.” BLM has also identified nearly 700,000 acres that it could lease in the future, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

"We aren't yet to the point where we can authorize any commercial development projects or even offer leases, but identifying the land that may eventually become available is an important first step," said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

"The potential of America's oil shale resources to meet future U.S. demand for fuel is significant," BLM Director Jim Casell said in announcing the release of the study. "The lands we are proposing to make available are estimated to hold, at a minimum, the equivalent of 61 billion barrels. At the low end of the range, that would yield enough gasoline to keep American tanks filled for 18 years."

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has already geared up to fight the leases. “They are putting in the cross-hairs some of the most stunningly beautiful wilderness areas in the state -- areas such as the San Rafael Swell, White Canyon and around the Dirty Devil River," Steve Bloch, SUWA's staff attorney, told the Salt Lake newspaper. “If you've never seen pictures of the tar sands project in Canada it is essentially a big open pit strip mine with a refinery on site."

The BLM has indicated that development would not start until about 2015. Previous efforts in the 1980s to develop the sands failed because of high costs.

The 90-day comment on the report ends on March 20. You can send your comments to the BLM via this site.

Comments

I used to wonder what the BLM stood for, but now I know:

If there's a buck to be made, rape it, mine it, destroy it and let our kids clean it up when we're gone.

The first sign to look for is a bill in Congress to change the name of the park to Canyonlands National Park & Preserve. And they'll try to pass it off as this wonderful thing to expand the park's boundaries and help citizens take full advantage of the many splendors of the Canyonlands landscape... it'll be cleverly worded so that the general public won't suspect a thing, because the name "Preserve" in NPS lingo means anything but.

You can't blame Big Oil for casting covetous eyes on the heavy oil out there in the western mountains and prairies. The bitumen in the tar sands and the kerogen in the oil shale contain so much oil that the you think "can't possibly be true" when you first see the statistics. It's even more mind-boggling that the Canadian reserves are vastly larger than our own, and together contain a stock of affordable oil that is considerably larger than the total of all the oil that has ever been pumped from the ground since humans first started using the stuff. Environmental considerations aside, the main obstacle to exploiting these hydrocarbons has always been the high cost of recovery and processing. Why should we have bothered with heavy oil when petroleum (especially light crude) was so cheap? Now that we've got hundred-dollar oil, however, the recovery cost impediment has been removed. Environmental impacts and water usage now become the major concerns. Here in America, Big Oil will almost certainly not get the go-ahead for large-scale extraction of heavy oil until their scientists and engineers prove that kerogen and bitumen can be extracted and processed without producing environmental havoc, ruining the viewscape, and depleting scarce water supplies. Watch for Big Oil to start promoting the use of "in-situ" processing methods for extracting liquid fuels and related fractions from oil sands and oil shales. In theory, in situ processing would eliminate the need for surface mines, require no above-ground retorting facilities, and leave the surface of the land looking essentially undisturbed. If in situ processing proves out, it will be a relatively simple matter for Big Oil to argue that heavy oil recovery poses no serious risks to our national parks, forests, and other resource lands. We who love the parks and fight to protect them are already being cast as "dog in the manger" villains who are preventing access to badly needed mineral supplies and impeding the struggle to achieve America's energy independence. The in situ processing argument, if Big Oil can wield it skillfully in the arena of public opinion, has the potential to make us look like damn fools. What a lousy scenario. We had better get our act together on this one, folks.

Hey Bob, how 'bout some more info on this "in situ" process. I'd rather hear it from you before I start hearing the media spin.

In situ ("in place") processing methods are designed to use steam, solvents, controlled combustion, and related techniques to remove liquid and gaseous fuels, bitumen, wax, and other valuable commodities from tar sands and oil shale deposits while leaving the waste rock and sand right where it sits. Because it eliminates the need for huge open-pit mines, in situ processing might be developed to the point where it has very little impact on viewscapes ("You can hardly see that it's there") and causes absolutely minimal degradation of wildlife habitat and other natural or cultural/historical features on the surface. Proponents are likely to argue that in situ processing is a win-win proposition, a sort of "have you cake and eat it too" approach to utilizing strategic resources.

Hello from Canada!
Your Senator McCain has ingnored invironmental issues for years and continues to do so today. I was curious to understand his strange behavior and your page...http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com... explains a great deal! Recently (February 2008) your president Bush has authorized the U.S. Federal Bureau of Land Management or BLM to do exploratory research within the States of Utah, Wyoming and Montana. With your page I am beginning to understand that the exploratory work for: Tar Sands and Shale and Gas deposits, is close or within the boundaries of your National Parks. Montana borders with Canada and Utah/Arizona borders with both California and Mexico. The Republican Presidential candidate, John McCain, is representing Arizona. The Oil exploration company, Canwest, is helping to fund the McCain presidential campaign and Bush is backing McCain.
The puzzle is almost complete. Within Arizona, the Navajo reserve has potential mineral deposits and all States mentioned create a North South corridor across the United States from Canada to Mexico.
It is a perfect Oil pipeline corridor and the State of Arizona has the pipe making ability.
Signed: Joseph Raglione
Executive director: The World Humanitarian Peace and Ecology Movement.