Utah OKs first commercial oil shale mine

 SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah company has cleared a final hurdle to develop the first commercial oil shale mine in the nation.

The Utah Division of Water Quality on Friday issued a groundwater permit to Red Leaf Resources, which plans to develop a shale mine on state land in the Uinta Basin in eastern Utah.

Red Leaf hopes to become the first company to extract oil in commercial amounts from shale that exists in abundance under Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Oil shale deposits in the three states represent a potentially huge, unconventional energy resource, but the trick is turning it into oil. Oil shale is rock that contains kerogen, which must be subjected to high heat before it produces liquid. Companies have been trying to figure out how to do that commercially in the U.S. with limited environmental impacts.

Red Leaf CEO Adolph Lechtenberger said in a statement that its initial, small-scale demonstration project will produce more than 300,000 barrels of oil and “prove our clean oil shale technology works on a large scale.” The company has some 600 million barrels available under its Utah leasehold.

But environmentalists expressed skepticism, saying groundwater disturbance is just one of many environmental drawbacks posed by extraction of the Uinta Basin’s rich oil shale and tar sands resources.

The ore will be strip mined, environmentalists said, and developers will consume more resources to convert hydrocarbon pre-cursors kerogen and bitumen into liquid oil.

“They take the skin off the planet and are not putting it back. It’s going to be a moonscape,” said John Weisheit of Moab-based Living Rivers. “They are destroying the watershed, the near-surface aquifers. It’s a water system that makes the ecosystem what it is.”

State regulators believe the lands do not have much groundwater, and note they are requiring Red Leaf to maintain monitoring wells to determine how the project affects the water system.

“We based our permit decision on the absence of water in the extraction process, the lack of an aquifer and low permeability of the rocks underlying the test site,” DWQ director Walt Baker told The Tribune. “We plan to keep a close eye on the project to make sure the process works as promised.”

Red Leaf also plans to develop below-grade ovens to heat the ore mined.

The company’s process “extracts oil with lower energy consumption, lower emissions, lower water use and less environmental impact than any oil shale technology deployed in the world today,” Lechtenberger said.
Environmentalists also criticized Red Leaf’s reclamation plan. “It allows them to keep the earth ovens in place and cover it with top soil,” Weisheit said.