January 2014 - Utah's Energy Future

Jan 28, 2014

Captain's Log 1XE, Day 12 in the month of December in the Earth Calendar Year of 2013.

At EcoFlight we pride ourselves on targeting members of diverse communities. What could be more diverse than an interesting array of scientists, biologists and conservationists meeting in a small town, and discussing the big issues of the day, notably unconventional oil in North America, and climate change.

The climate that day was in serious winter mode in Aspen, Colorado with temperatures in the single digits. So what better opportunity than to hop into starship 1XE and head over to the balmy warm deserts surrounding Moab. Not! We found the temps in Moab to be in the mid teens and no more inviting than those in Aspen, and there wasn't a red rock to be found, as everything was blanketed in snow. It was incredibly unique from our aerial perspective to see the beautiful Colorado Plateau covered in the most pristine winter white.

These scientists and conservation biologists gathered from near and far (Canada), to discuss the dauntingly large and complex aspects of the development of unconventional oil (oil sands and oil shale), from policy to politics, to parts per million. Specifically, they were looking at the impacts of oil sands on everything from local stream health to marine ecosystems to global climate change. They addressed current knowledge gaps in the consequences of full-scale development of this unproven industry. This three day retreat, organized by Grand Canyon Trust, included overflights by EcoFlight to provide the big picture educational aerial tour of lands that are being targeted for oil sands development within the unique formations and world class landscapes of Utah's Greater Canyonlands and Red Rock Country.

One company in particular, Red Leaf, has been awarded a groundwater discharge permit to test an oil shale mining facility. Their plan is to strip-mine shale in an open pit, line it with clay, then crush, backfill, bury and bake the rock at over 700 degrees F for three months. One can only imagine the vast amounts of energy required for this process, and huge potential for toxic waste to leak from this experimental clay capsule. It seems odd that Red Leaf's discharge permit requires no monitoring of surface or groundwater on site. It is therefore not surprising that a coalition of conservation groups has challenged that permit. There are many factors in play and the technology appears to still be a ways off. There is a drive to develop this land for all kinds of energy extraction, and it is piquing the attention of the public at large, and giving scientists pause, to speak out about possible consequences and to show the comparisons to the Alberta oil sands project that is so devastating to the environment.

The bottom line for me, as we flew back east from this magical area, was the knowledge that there is an effective and engaged scientific community giving serious thought to this type of resource extraction, the long term impacts it will have, and of course the fragility of the landscapes that will be affected. This community will hopefully have their say when the politics of the region come into play. We aim to help our partners mobilize scientists and galvanize groups to educate people about this sweeping and multifaceted threat to our most biologically diverse landscapes, especially in our beautiful state of Utah.


Bruce Gordon