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Utah Tar Sands

Suncor operations Alberta, CA Pembina Institute Tar sands operation in Alberta, Canada.

Utah's tar sands are attracting attention due to the massive development of tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta. Alberta is the now the largest foreign supplier of petroleum products for the United States, surpassing all Middle Eastern countries by a significant margin. But all tar sands are not created equal and Utah's form of tar sands have significant drawbacks that make commercial exploitation far less favorable for energy companies.

Tar sands development in Canada has been called one of the greatest ecological disasters on the planet. Toxic tailings "ponds" filled with waste water from tar sands processing are so large they are visible from space. Leakage from these ponds into the Athabasca River is being connected to unusually high rates of rare cancers for people downstream. The tar sands production process emits such high amounts of pollution that air quality, visibility and clean air regulations are seriously compromised. Albertans are paying a very high price in health and quality of life because of this massive operation.

What is tar sands?

Tar sands are a mixture of bitumen, a less-than-optimal form of petroleum that has been heavily degraded over time by bacteria and other factors, and fine sediments to form a thick, semi-solid compound. Because of the degradation process, tar sands contain a smaller fraction of energy and a larger fraction of thick asphalt, normally a byproduct of refining conventional crude oil, that is used for road paving material and as a roofing sealant. Through energy and water-intensive processes, the remaining energy component can be separated from tar sands.

Not all tar sands are equal

Utah tar sands seep An outcropping of Utah tar sands.

Canadian tar sands deposits have a microscopic film of water holding the bitumen to the sand so a simple steam process can separate the two materials.

In contrast, Utah's tar sands are far more difficult to mine and process. The thin layer of water found in Alberta's tar sands does not exist in Utah's desposits. Rather than being a soft, scoopable material, Utah tar sands are hard, dense rocks that have to be mined using milling-type equipment, along with more traditional drilling and blasting techniques. The bitumen contained within the tar sands does not easily separate using steam, and instead requires a chemical solvent. No extraction technology has proven commercially successful for getting fuel out of Utah tar sands.

Utah's tar sands are spread out in thin, stratified layers over a large and frequently mountainous area. As a result, there are serious economic disadvantages to pursuing tar sands development in Utah.

Tar sands do have one historic economic benefit: it is still used as a road paving material. Utah tar sands have been spread out as a road surface in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, California, Washington, Ohio, and Japan.