Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Battle to Stop Strip Mining in the Colorado River Basin

The White River flows through southern Utah, one of the water sources at the center of environmentalists’ concern when it comes to strip-mine projects planned in the Colorado River Basin. (Photo courtesy Ray Bloxham/Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance)

DENVER – A massive oil shale project is being planned on the border between Colorado and Utah that would take a lot of water out of the Colorado River Basin. The proposal by a European company, was authorized to proceed by the federal government; however, it may now find itself between a rock and a hard place because of a lawsuit recently filed by eight environmental organizations.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s oil shale reserves are in the Green River Formation, where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming meet, according to the website for Enefit, an energy company. Enefit is a subsidiary of a state-owned company located in the Baltic Sea country of Estonia, and it wants to strip mine about 27,000 of its acres in Utah to access the oil in the rock that’s at the surface, or just below. The rock would be heated to high temperatures to release crude oil, which would then be ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The mine would be located in a remote and rugged part of Utah about 40 miles from of Dinosaur National Monument in the Uintah Basin. It would be the first of its kind in the U.S. However, on May 16, eight different environmental groups represented by attorneys at Earthjustice banded together and sued the federal government to stop it.

Michael Toll, an attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the groups suing, said that the Bureau of Land Management did a completely inadequate analysis of the massive impacts of the planned oil shale development.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity joined with the Grand Canyon Trust and five other conservation groups claiming that, in issuing its permit, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not fully analyze issues like the impacts on wildlife and particularly water depletions from the Green River, an important tributary in the already stressed Colorado River Basin. Instead, the agencies looked only at the limited effects of a 14-mile water pipeline—not the whole operation.

Toll said that it’s difficult to identify the most significant impact of the proposed operation. He said that it’s a unique project with several impacts that are so egregious it is hard to pick just one. The project’s water consumption stands out because the region is so arid and, obviously, all through the West water is such a precious commodity. The mine would take about 11,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Green River. Toll said he thinks the company wants to take the water from the Green because that amount is oftentimes more than the entire flow of the nearby White River, another tributary in the basin. In a statement, Earthjustice said that depletions from the Green would harm critical habitat for endangered fish, including the Colorado pikeminnow and the razorback sucker.

In addition to the effects on water and wildlife, the environmental groups say the government needs to consider the enormous amounts of carbon emissions from burning the more than 500 million barrels of oil produced from the mining. A release by the Grand Canyon Trust says that oil shale is one of world’s most carbon-polluting fuels, with lifecycle carbon emissions up to 75 percent higher than those of conventional fuels.

And, there is the problem of the region’s air quality. The process of baking the rock to get the oil will emit huge amounts of ozone precursors, according to Earthjustice. Toll said that the Uintah Basin, where the mining operations could be located, was recently designated as out-of-attainment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standards. He said there are many days when the air in the basin is unsafe to breathe, and it would be dramatically degraded by the mining.

In addition, the sheer size of the project will have huge impacts. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, Enefit is proposing to dig out more that 28 million tons of oil shale per year for 30 years or more. Rains would potentially cause salts and other pollutants to infiltrate into ground water and nearby surface waters, affecting various species. The amount of ground disturbance from the mine itself is another significant impact, according to Toll.

The plaintiffs in the case filed in Federal District Court in Salt Lake City want the court to order the Trump administration to do a comprehensive analysis of all the impacts for the proposed operation, instead of only considering a small feature of the project—a utility corridor including a water pipeline.

Enefit responded by email to a request for comment from H2O Radio. Ryan Clerico, the CEO of Enefit American Oil, said that the company is still conducting engineering and permitting in advance of commencing commercial operations. He also said that the government’s approval is only about a corridor for utilities and not for the project itself, which would be done by other state and federal agencies.

For now, the environmental groups have not asked the court to stop the project because the company has not started to dig up any ground, but if they get wind of that happening they will ask the court to halt it.

This story was first published by on May 22, 2019. Read the original report here.