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.