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Utah Has the First Tar Sands Mine in the U.S.

The mine will operate on land in the Book Cliffs area

A giant truck carrying tar sand from a mine in Canada (Donald Johnston/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The Book Cliffs in eastern Utah are named for caps of Cretaceous sandstone that look like shelves of books. The remote area is also rich in mineral, oil and gas deposits — a fact that has led a Canadian company to open the first tar sands mine in the United States.

The company, U.S. Oil Sands, spent $100 million to acquire rights to 50 square miles in the Book Cliffs area. The company also has a "brand-new, non-toxic method of separating out the oil with the use of an orange-peel extract similar to what's in citrus-scented household soaps and detergents," reports Brady McCombs for the Associated Press.

Tar sands or oil sands are where clay, sand and water are mixed with bitumen, a heavy, sticky black oil. Extracting the oil requires open pit or strip mining and a complex separation process to divorce the bitumen from the clay and water, followed by "upgrading" to make the viscous substance into crude oil or other hydrocarbon products. The process is complex, and water intensive. About 12 barrels of water are needed to separate one barrel of bitumen, reports David Biello for Scientific American.  Canada and Venezuela have mined tar sands for years — much of the bulk imported petroleum in the U.S. comes from the sands of northeastern Alberta. But this is the first tar sands mine in the United States.

Estimates put the tar sands oil resources in Utah at 12 to 19 billion barrels, most of it, like the deposits in the Book Cliffs, located on public lands. 

The environmental impacts of tar sands mining brought people to protest the Utah mine. McCombs reports that protestors have camped at the mining site all summer. "It's impossible to reclaim and rehabilitate the land once they do what they are planning to do with it," Melanie Martin of the Tar Sands Resistance Movement told the AP. "The land is not going to come back for millennia."

U.S. Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd has said that the mine will be "the world’s most environmentally responsible oil sands project ever built," thanks to the new separation method and plans to reclaim the open pits after mining. Utah officials who approved the mine also placed additional requirements on the company to monitor air and water quality. 

Although Mississippi and Alabama have considered tar sand mining in their states, an industry research analyst, Alex Beeker, says that the best prospects in the U.S. are in Utah. The newly acquired mine site probably isn’t the first of many, unless the economics of oil change. McCombs writes, "By the company's own estimate, it will make little to nothing at crude oil's current price of $48 per barrel, down from a peak of $147 in 2008."

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