220px-Tar_Sandstone_California    In North America we are challenged by a rash of Extreme Energy projects that threaten to destabilize our climate by spewing massive new sources of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. This year, the Obama Administration opened large areas of the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska to off-shore drilling. The dirty Alberta Tar Sands already cough up more than 1.6 million barrels of oil per day, and many new pipelines have been proposed that could triple production within 15 years. (Fortunately for our ecosystem, there has been a groundswell of resistance to these pipelines, led by a coalition of First Nation people, farmers, and environmentalists throughout Canada and the United States.) In our own backyard, Colorado has more than 30,000 active oil and gas wells, with plans to dramatically expand production on public lands.

Heads up Colorado, there’s one more – the first tar sands mine is now operating in the United States, just across our border in Northeast Utah. A Canadian company with the Orwellian name U.S. Oil Sands began operations on Utah state land at a site called P.R. Springs.  The mine sites atop the Book Cliffs south of Vernal, Utah, and drains into the Colorado River Basin, threatening the drinking water of the 30 million people who live downstream. Although the current mine is limited to 213 acres, U.S. Oil Sands already has a permit to mine 32,000 acres of state land, with the potential to exploit more than 20 times that area; the totality of Utah tar sands deposits cover more than 800,000 acres — 1,200 square miles, and sit mostly on federal lands managed by the BLM.

270px-Utah_in_United_States.svg  Estimates of producible oil from the Utah Tar Sands range from 12 billion to 31 billion barrels, which are extracted by digging up and crushing the tar sand, then heating it with a proprietary solvent to separate the bitumen from the sand. As with the Alberta Tar Sands, the process is extremely energy intensive and is therefore a very dirty fuel to produce. Completely burning these deposits would flood our already out-of-control fossil fuel production with even more dirty fuel and severely exacerbate global warming.

Given this stark reality, several groups in Utah have fought to stop the project before it becomes commercially viable. Two groups – Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates – have challenged the permitting process at every step, but have only slowed down progress. Other groups, such as Peaceful Uprising (cofounded by Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher) and Utah Tar Sands Resistance, have employed direct action to physically shut down the mine and surrounding infrastructure. In 2013, when the P.R. Springs mine was just a few acre shallow test pit, the two groups hosted a week-long camp that culminated in an all-day action in which 60 activists closed the mine, locked down heavy machinery, and blocked work for an entire day on a new stretch of highway designed to support the transport of tar sands to extraction facilities. In the process, not a single person was arrested; the few law enforcement officers on the scene opted to allow the civil disobedience and instead focus on public safety.

Last year, the two groups hosted a continuous encampment throughout the summer on public land adjacent to the mine. Then in July 2014, 80 activists participated in an action in which they once again locked down equipment and stopped work at the mine. In that action, law enforcement was more prepared. Initially 13 activists were arrested for criminal trespass, but when they were handcuffed and loaded into police vans, six additional activists were arrested for blocking the vans from leaving the scene. All were later released on bond, although the latter six were later charged with rioting. Then in September, another six activists in chipmunk masks were arrested for frolicking on the site and disrupting work.

Due to harsh winter conditions at the mine, activity shuts down in the fall. This summer however, both the tar sands workers and the activists are back at it. Peaceful Uprising is hosting a series of camps aimed to draw attention to the mine and support new direct actions. This weekend, folks from Colorado are invited to a week-long camp designed to forge relationships among the various activist groups and “see that our many different struggles are all connected.” To register, email your name, phone number, what groups you are associated with (if any), how many people will be coming with you, and experience level with direct action to info@peacefuluprising.org.

By Brad Thacker