First US Tar Sands Mine Set to Open for Business

Brady McCombs

BOOK CLIFFS, Utah (AP) — A Canadian company is about to embark on something never before done commercially in the United States: digging sticky, black, tar-soaked sand from the ground and extracting the petroleum.

The impending opening of the nation’s first tar sands mine has become another front in the battle across the West between preservationists and the energy industry.

U.S. Oil Sands has invested nearly $100 million over the last decade to acquire rights to about 50 square miles, obtain permits and develop what it says is a brand-new, non-toxic method of separating out the oil.

“We’re dedicated to having the world’s most environmentally responsible oil sands project ever built,” CEO Cameron Todd said.

Across the rolling green hills of the Book Cliffs of eastern Utah, about 165 miles from Salt Lake City, the company plans this fall to begin digging pits to extract oil from the sand that crumbles in your hand like a brownie.

Tar sands, also called bitumen, are naturally occurring deposits of petroleum. Unlike the oil that flows out of wells, the hydrocarbons in tar sands must first be separated from the dirt by mixing the stuff with hot water and solvent.

Oil production from tar sands has been going on for years in Canada and Venezuela.

Protesters have tried to thwart the mine’s construction for two summers in a row and have gotten arrested for chaining themselves to equipment. They argue that the project is an eyesore and that it could contaminate nearby springs and ruin habitat for deer, beaver and bears.

U.S. Oil Sands estimates there are 180 MMbbls of oil close to the surface on the land it is leasing. It plans to begin turning out 2,000 bpd later this year — a puny share of the 9.3 MMbpd the U.S. produces daily — and take it by truck to refineries. The company said the mine will create about 50 full-time jobs when opened.

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