The following is second of a two part series written by Brad Thacker.  To see part 1, click here

A few miles west of the Colorado –Utah border off of I-70, a narrow gravel road cuts north through desert sage, up the steep white sandstone Book Cliffs, past majestic stands of aspens, to a plateau almost 3000 feet above desert. The high forest is home to coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, pronghorn sheep and swarms of chipmunks. On the plateau, the road also passes a long stretch of No Trespassing signs, and abruptly turns to a major thoroughfare just before the entrance to the tar sands mine run by a Canadian company – US Oil Sands. From the mine, the 55 foot wide paved highway known as “Seep Ridge Road” runs 45 miles to Vernal.

Two years ago, the road to Vernal was just a continuation of the narrow gravel road to the south, and the tar sands mine a two acre shallow test pit. During that time, US Oil Sands raised $80 million to finance the first stages of production. Coinciding with this development, activists from Peaceful Uprising and Tar Sands Resistance carried out several actions to stop construction and raise public awareness about the mine. One of their first actions was to stop work on the new road, which was developed at a cost of $3 million to $6 million a mile – at taxpayer expense – to handle the heavy equipment required to transport bitumen and operate the mine. Two years later, the road is complete, and the mine is now a sprawling 200+ acre site with three large test pits and giant mounds of ‘overburden’ – the trees, rocks and soil scraped from the pits. Although the mine is still in the prototype phase, US Oil Sands has leased 32,000 acres and is ready to ramp up in a big way.

Utah Tar Sands

Activists blocking progress in the Utah Tar Sands. Photo from Direct Autonomous Media.


In a recent action on August 10, activists set up two tripod blockades on the mine site in the middle of a gravel road. During the blockage, no heavy equipment traveled the road. The Uintah County Police used a cherry picker to remove and arrest the activist atop the first tripod. En route to the second tripod, the cherry picker was intercepted by a third activist who quickly locked down the machine before he was intercepted by the police. It took police an hour to cut away this activist before removing the second tripod. In all, police spent three hours clearing the blockade, and in the process arrested 4 people.

Police use cherry pickers to arrest protestors of the Utah Tar Sands. Photo from Direct Autonomous Media.

Police use cherry pickers to arrest activists of the Utah Tar Sands. Photo from Direct Autonomous Media.

The first pit is almost ready for commercial production – 23 acres have been bulldozed, fenced off with a 10 foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire, and processing equipment is in place to begin extraction of the estimated 190 million barrels within the permitted boundaries. Unlike the Alberta Tar sands, which uses high temperature steam to extract the bitumen from the sand, US Oil Sands plans to extract the bitumen using a citrus-based solvent called d-limonene, which they tout as an “environmentally friendly“ process, and plan to recycle continuously. But mining bitumen is a notoriously inefficient process, requiring massive amounts of energy to excavate and crush the rock, extract the tar from the sand, and transport the bitumen to a processing facility. By some estimates, the Energy required to extract a barrel of usable fuel from tar sands is as high as 2/3 a barrel. Besides the obvious contribution such an inefficient process makes to climate change, it’s also economically questionable given the current low price of oil.

Sometime this fall, US Oils Sands plans to begin commercial extraction of the tar sands and demonstrate profitability of the mine. If successful, this project could spawn massive expansion throughout Utah, Colorado, and other states with tar sands deposits. If it fails, however, it will likely doom the industry for the foreseeable future, caught between the high cost of production and the low price of oil. But Tar Sands activists are not sitting back to watch stock charts. They understand the stakes are high, and history beckons.

Standing united against the Utah Tar Sands. Photo from DIrect Autonomous Media.

Standing united against the Utah Tar Sands. Photo from Direct Autonomous Media.

For more information about the Utah Tar Sands Resistance, you can visit their website.