The first ever commercial tar sands operation in the United States is about to be opened by Canadian firm U.S. Oil Sands Inc. (USOS) and conservations are furious. The location of the site is near the Book Cliffs of Utah, and the project will use a totally new extraction method to separate the precious oil trapped in sand. The opening comes amid intense conflict between conservationists and the oil industry.
The firm has invested almost $100 million over ten years to acquire some 50 square miles and plans to use a totally new, ‘non-toxic’ method of retrieval. The project will employ a biodegradable orange-peel extract for the oil separation process and is, according to USOS CEO Cameron Todd, “the world’s most environmentally responsible oil sands project ever built.”
Tar sands are composed of oil-soaked sand, which must be separated before the oil is usable. Past methods have used toxic solvents, so the new solvent used by USOS may alleviate at least one of the arguments against the practice. Using the new extraction process, USOS plans to refill the pits with clean sand, which it will then cultivate with grass.
The resulting oil is planned to be transported in the yet to be approved Keystone XL pipeline. Projects like Book Cliff have been in operation for years in Canada yet they come with a heavy environmental impact. The projects have left tailing ponds containing millions of gallons of toxic sludge that makes its way into groundwater supplies and kills millions of migratory birds annually.
The breakeven oil price for tar sands projects is around $100 per barrel, which is much higher than current prices ranging between $40 and $50 per barrel.
Back when USOS began acquiring land for the project, oil had been on an upward streak, one that would eventually peak at $147 in 2008.
The project has witnessed protests the past two summers by those who argue that the area is used by hikers, hunters, and campers. Utah has chosen to listen to USOS, however, already having approved three other tar sands projects in the same region.
USOS hopes to extract around 180 million barrels of oil from the project, at a rate of 2,000 per day, once operation starts, although prices may have to rebound somewhat before the project becomes profitable.