US Approves First Tar Sands Mine


I and other environmental journalists have been denouncing tar sands for almost a decade, or ever since the Alberta Tar Sands Shell Canada mine began operating, in 2003, after more than two decades of low oil prices.


Tar sand deposits (also called oil sands) are unconventional sources of oil; that is, they can’t be extracted by drilling wells, or even by fracking when oil well production declines.

Instead, tar sands oil recovery requires even dirtier, more polluting processes. These include strip mining, like coal, followed by the use of steam and solvents to “thin” the oil so that it will flow through pipelines. In their natural state, tar sands are bituminous; that is, more like soft coal deposits than oil deposits, and their natural viscosity is made even worse by cold (of which Alberta province has more than its share).

As environmental writer Jason Mark noted in his Earth Island Journal, “The morality of the tar sands comes down to a choice of who and what we are willing to destroy.”


















More important, Mark insists, is that the real culprits are not necessarily the companies doing the mining, the investors making it possible, or even the families who live in Ft. McKay and make their living off working the tar sands. The real criminals are oil-addicted American consumers in the lower 48 who simply can’t say no to themselves and their addiction. Because more than half of tar sands oil goes directly into the U.S. economy.

The result? More than 100,000 birds drowned yearly in toxic tar sands tailing ponds, according to the Chicago Audubon Society. And more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2 – the greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming – as compared to conventional oil extraction.

In fact, because of the huge – perhaps incalculable – carbon footprint of tar sands, it may be impossible to stay at or near the global warming “holding point”, of 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say we must if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Other effects of tar sands mining include groundwater pollution, the destruction of the Alberta boreal forest, the pollution in the Athabasca River – which has decimated native stocks of fish and other aquatic creatures – and finally the human health effects, namely cancer from toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic, and worsened asthma and emphysema from the processing factories’ emissions, to name just a few.  


In effect, if oil fields are a toxic nightmare, oil sands – which demand even more water and energy for extraction – are Munchian, and it isn’t difficult to imagine Mother Earth opening her mouth in the sort of howl of horror and disbelief portrayed in Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream.  


Which is why the April 2011 announcement, that the U.S. had approved it first tar sands mining operation, struck many of us in the environmental movement as almost apocalyptic. How much more can the Earth, and the continent of North America, take?


Nor is it simply a tar sands mine, in Uintah County, Utah – which owner Earth Energy estimates contains more than 250 million barrels of oil on more than 7,800 acres. It is a pipeline – the TransCanada Keystone XL – to transport that chemical-laden oil to refineries in Texas.

The Keystone XL passes through America’s heartland; through the corn- and grain-growing “breadbasket” that feeds the more than 300 million U.S. citizens, who count on the ready and abundant presence of cereal-grain foods like bread and corn flakes and toasted oats and pasta – and beer.


This pipeline also passes, in places, through wilderness areas like the Ogallala Aquifer, the groundwater reservoir under eight Midwestern states that supports both farmland irrigation and drinking water. It also passes across the Nebraska Sand Hills, one of the nation’s largest and most varied wetland ecosystems, and these are only two of the many pristine wilderness areas the pipeline will desecrate if allowed to operate.


Is it any wonder that this U.S. tar sands proposal, a monstrosity-in-the-making by anyone’s definition, has the backing of the infamous Koch brothers?  US Approves First 

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If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

The proposed mine in Uintah and Grand Counties will be located in the book cliffs, a stunning stratified mountain range on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Not only will this mine wound the beauty of this geological wonder - it will also threaten or harm the multitude of species in the area, including endangered species, and will worsen the air quality in an already polluted area. In 2010, the EPA released a report that found Uintah County, with a population of only 30,000 residents, to have more poor air quality days than Los Angeles or Houston.

The Mine, operated by Alberta-owned Earth Energy Resources, will use about 2 gallons for ever 1 gallon of bitumen released, and will require a substantial energy commitment that reduces net energy production at the mine almost in half. The process includes releasing a citrus-based chemical into the ground which will bind with water and the other sludge ingredients to strip the viscous petrol fuel away from the rock and release it to the surface. The bitumen must be processed in order to reach crude standards, which includes heating the fuel multiple times and transporting it across hundreds of miles, both steps that require substantial energy consumption.

Although EER has received a green light from the state of Utah, there are unable to move forward with their project because of two issues. First, Grand County has yet to issue a conditional use permit to the company to operate a mine. About 95% of the book cliffs, including the mine location, are public-owned lands. Grand County is home to Arches and Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse State Park, and the only town in Utah on the Colorado River (Moab). Hopefully, the county will put their foot down and say "no" to tar sands.

Also stopping progress on the mine is a joint lawsuit by Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates against the state department of Natural Resources, asserting that the department did not do an adequate job of assessing the environmental impact of this development before issuing the permit. Both organizations are non-profits, and are dedicating several hundred hours to fighting this project. To find out how you can help, email

Also, visit or to learn more about the EER mine. See pictures of the site where the mine is being proposed, and learn about how little pressure Utah is putting on the Alberta company to protect our precious water and land.

Written in April 2011

I know, Emily, but thanks for pointing this out to readers again. We can't drill it home often enough; the land is priceless, the oil will be gone in a heartbeat, and all that will be left is a wasteland. It breaks my heart to think about it. Direct your friends here, have them comment; post everywhere. Let's see if we can stop them, or at least slow them down until cooler heads prevail.
Thanks, Emily.

Written in April 2011

Jeff (anonymous)

I appreciate what you are saying and trying to convey...however the energy-environment debate requires fact not rhetoric. The Audubon Society article is a reprint of a National Resources Defence Council article. NRDC is funded in a large part by the Rockefeller Foundation....which is largely a front for ensuring that Rockefeller business interests (oil and oil services) in the Middle East is protected. The estimates of bird kill are at the high end and are not based on fact. And the energy intensity of mineable extraction on a wells to wheels basis is only 15% higher than the current conventional crude processed in US refineries. The true culprit in this battle is the consumer. Without a would not be produced. We here in Canada are often accused of being the "enablers of the addicts"...the addicts being the US consumers of energy. Canada just happens to supply the addicts fix. It is an interesting debate however big US business has no desire to ensure that the American economy is weened off of oil and gas.

Written in April 2011

Your figure, 15 percent, may be off by as much as 30 percent, depending on the area and density of the tar. Read:
And I agree with you wholeheartedly that the real culprit is the American consumer.

Written in April 2011

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  • Posted on April 26, 2011. Listed in:

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