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Oil Shale Extraction: Worse Than Fracking, and Estonian Company Wants to Do It in Utah Desert

An Estonian company wants to mine lands for oil shale, a bigger carbon footprint than any other fossil fuel extraction.
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Northeastern Utah, home to recalcitrant oil deposits ripe for fracking, is edging into the national energy debate as yet another frontline battle against fossil fuel extraction.

RELATED: Tar Sands in Utah? Oil Industry Comes Knocking at Uintah and Ouray Reservation

This time it is a substance called oil shale, which is even harder to extract crude from than regular shale, according to former Senator Mark Udall, who calls the process “squeezing oil from a stone.” Yet that is exactly what Estonian-owned Eesti Energia plans to do.

“Oil shale is sedimentary rock containing bituminous minerals that can be mined and processed to release petroleum products,” he wrote in an August 5 editorial in The New York Times. “Not to be confused with shale gas, which is a major American industry, oil shale has never been successfully commercially exploited in the United States, even though over half of the world’s known oil shale deposits are in the Colorado River Basin.”

The U.S. affiliate, Enefit American Oil, has bought and leased more than 30,000 acres of land in Utah and is pushing for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow it to strip mine for oil shale in the upper Colorado River Basin, processing 50,000 barrels per day. The company would, according to comments filed with the BLM by 14 conservation groups in June, strip mine as much as 28 million tons of rock annually over 14 square miles of undeveloped lands, leaving up to 750 million tons in waste rock, and taking as much as 100 billion gallons of water from the already-taxed Colorado River basin.

Udall goes on to speak of oil shale mining’s reputation and legacy in Estonia. But perhaps a description of that is better left to an actual Estonian.

“In my country, Estonia, the oil shale industry has permanently damaged many of our most important natural resources,” wrote Silvia Lotman, chief executive officer of the nongovernmental conservation organization the Estonian Fund for Nature, in a June 12 piece for The Salt Lake Tribune. “Parts of northeastern Estonia have become unusable sacrifice zones that will never recover from the impacts of oil shale mining. As the country with the world's largest oil shale mining operations, we have lost much of our land, damaged our water and emitted more than our share of carbon into the atmosphere.”

While much money has been invested in restoring landscapes and habitat, “you still find areas like the ‘phenols marshland’—a contaminated marsh of oil shale wastewater,” Lotman wrote. “The contaminated water comes from huge mountains of oil shale waste, called the ‘Estonian Alps,’ that are visible from space. Rain washes chemicals from these waste piles into the landscape and water. What will happen to Utah and to communities downstream if Enefit's waste harms the upper basin of the Colorado River watershed?”

How could this play out in the U.S.? Enefit Oil is asking the BLM “to let it run three pipelines and a power line across federal land,” Udall wrote. “If the agency says yes, Enefit could break ground on the first serious commercial-scale oil shale project in the United States as early as next year. That would open the door to oil shale mining nationally.”

Is this something we really want?

As Udall points out, “water, not oil, is our most precious resource” in the arid Colorado River Basin. And shale oil’s carbon footprint is 23 percent to 73 percent greater than crude extracted in the conventional way, he notes, quoting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And that, as Earthjustice staff attorney Ted Zukoski wrote in The Hill, runs directly counter to all the climate agreements signed in Paris last December. Enefit would use as much as 100 billion gallons of water from the Upper Colorado River basin, Zukoski wrote, and its half-square-mile processing plant will “spew air pollutants” that can rival Los Angeles smog.

“But most destructive of all may be the climate pollution,” according to Zukoski. “Enefit’s own analysis shows that the amount of carbon emitted from production and burning of oil shale is up to 35 percent greater than that of conventional oil per unit of energy, and greater even than notoriously carbon-intensive oil sands. That means the synthetic crude Enefit wants to produce would have far worse climate impacts than the conventional crude Enefit’s fuel would supplant.”