Utah’s Climate Struggle

In honor of the Climate march this weekend, I want to share some fossil fuel resistance from my neck of the woods.

Aerial photo of the US Tar Sands test area
Aerial photo of the US Tar Sands test area

On July 21st, Uintah County law enforcement officers arrested 21 activists engaged in an act of civil disobedience at the only active tar sands mining operation in the United States. During this protest, a few of the activists secured themselves to machinery, putting their bodies in the way of the planned strip mining. Other activists planted themselves in front of law enforcement vehicles in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent officers from hauling off arrestees, moving from the outside to the inside of the prisoner transport vehicle. A few were also arrested at the lock-up facility in Vernal, Utah where the activists were held. Someone commented to me that their crime was probably looking like treehuggers in Vernal.

What causes people, like these folks, to jeopardize their physical wellbeing and encourage their own incarceration over a small piece of land that most people don’t know exists?

First, let me introduce the bad guys. US Oil Sands, a Canadian company, intends to develop tar sand deposits on the Tavaputs plateau, the site in Eastern Utah of the aforementioned resistance. They currently hold a lease with Utah’s School Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) covering 32,005 acres of pinion, juniper, and Douglas fir. According to their website, the area holds around 4.5 billion barrels of oil locked up in the sandstone—tar sands.

The company claims that their extraction process, the process of separating the bitumen (read: oil) from the rock matrix, is the next generation of technology that promises increased economic and environmental performance compared to the Clark Hot Water Extraction Process used in the Athabasca oil sands. (Note: oils sand and tar sands are used interchangeably.) The new process uses a non-toxic, biodegradable solvent derived from citrus fruit, called d-Limonene, to perform the separation. Most of it, along with the vast majority of the water, is reused continuously in the process cycle. Overall, the process uses 50% less energy than the traditional method.

Many of its executives are veterans of the Alberta Tar Sands (photo tour here), and yet they have chosen Utah as the place to perform their first operation. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t start their process in an active area that could benefit from a cleaner process. Fifty-percent less energy would mean huge energy savings in Alberta. Perhaps some strange law of physics related to proximity with melting sea ice makes the process less beneficial on that side of the border?

I’m guessing the state was supportive, along with other business interests in the region. Keep in mind the extent of oil and gas exploration that is already going on in the region. (Click here to see what I mean. Zoom in and out for the incredible, yet gut-wrenching, effect.) This is a land forgotten by Utah, the ugly little sister of the more aesthetic desert regions including Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion. While the world is distracted by the beauty of the national parks, the state government has been using this land as a cash cow. US Tar Sands had little trouble passing it permits through the Utah bureaucracy, and were undoubtedly made to feel welcome by the business interests.

Well, the process is cleaner and more efficient. The market for oil these days will make it economical. The endeavor will provide jobs and income to the state. No one is out there, so only a handful of people will even notice. Surely, these lands are an ideal sacrifice zone, ready for the altar of our cars, asphalt, and convenience. Right?

Not according to the Utah Tar Sands Resistance or the organizations that endorsed them during their most recent act of civil disobedience, like Living Rivers, Canyonlands Watershed Council, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, and even the Rainforest Action Network. To them, developing tar sands is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel. The new process is unproven in Utah, as are the promises of restoration of the fragile landscape made by US Oil Sands. The damage the process causes to the global environment with carbon emissions or the local environment through old fashion degradation is too much.

Through their action, the activists told the development interests in corporations and the government that enough is enough, that we have devastated too much land to satisfy collective greed. We’ve passed the threshold of what is acceptable to destroy to maintain our comfy lifestyles. Even though this patch of earth is expansive and “unused,” developing tar sands goes too far. It’s a sign that we need to do things differently. Our end game should be squeezing the last drop of oil from the ground.

Aerial photo of the US Tar Sands experimental area courtesy of Canyonlands Watershed Council
Aerial photo of the US Tar Sands experimental area courtesy of Canyonlands Watershed Council

I met some of the members of the resistance in June. Their affinity for this place, desolate though it may be by many people’s standards, struck me. The repeated refrain I heard from them of “I’m here because I love this land” expressed with solemnity, the stare that saw beyond me, and inner conviction to do something about it came across with power.

I can see why they love it, though perhaps those in power wouldn’t. The desolation is part of the allure. Almost a hundred miles south of a significant town, here’s nobody here. Evergreens bedeck the plateaus, and aspens choke the drainages. No one lives this far out, except the animals and the rare camper. The asphalt road ends a few miles up the road, and was only paved recently to better serve the extraction industry. At night, far away from any source of light pollution, distant stars and galaxies illuminate the heavens giving rise to sublime, unearthly thoughts. The scene is simply beautiful. It left me wondering why we destroy anything wild to pursue such tame existences.

It came without surprise to learn of the arrests of those defending this contested terrain. Their motivation is indicative of what is great in the human experiment. They will not be rewarded with money or fame for their sacrifice. They will likely receive the opposite—poverty and infamy and defamation from financial interests. Yet they have transcended petty self-service in this case, earning the right to believe that they did the right thing for themselves, for the rest of us, and for the planet. That’s it. That’s their reward, one that we might all emulate.

Names of the incarcerated activists can be found in this article. I thank them, along with anyone taking action on the climate issue, for their example and their willingness.

Hope for success in New York!

(Special thanks to the folks at Canyonlands Watershed Council for the use of their photos.)