Ongoing appeals of an oil shale mine in the Book Cliffs could continue well into next year, but in the meantime, the developer is moving forward with a commercial demonstration project.
Red Leaf Resources began earth-moving work last month on an “early production system” capsule at its Seep Ridge Block project near the Grand and Uintah County lines.
The initial construction workforce of about 20 people is expected to grow to more than 60 people by the end of August, according to Jeff Hartley, the company’s vice president of government affairs and communications.
The stand-alone demonstration project aims to show that Red Leaf’s patented “EcoShale” extraction process is commercially viable; it’s expected to produce an estimated 300,000 barrels of oil from kerogen-rich rock, according to Hartley.
“Then we’ll tweak what we’ll need to in the designs and move forward with (mine) construction,” he said.
Red Leaf’s big-picture plans call for the development of a 10,000-barrel-per-day production facility to process mined oil shale resources from a vast stretch of the Book Cliffs. The company estimates that the 17,000 acres of lands it leases from Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) hold about 120 million barrels of oil.
However, Western Resource Advocates staff attorney Rob Dubuc is maneuvering to stop the company before its operations grow to that point.
He previously appealed two Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) project permits on behalf of Moab-based Living Rivers, and he expects those challenges will eventually be merged into a single appeal.
Attorneys for both sides will likely file a series of related motions some time this fall, at which point Dubuc plans to ask an administrative law judge to put construction activity on hold.
Dubuc predicts that it could take the administrative law judge months to rule on the appeals, one way or another.
“I honestly don’t think there’s going to be a hearing until the first of the year [in 2015],” Dubuc said. “I don’t think we’ll have a decision until early spring.”
Hartley said the company’s state permits are valid and active, and he believes they will survive further legal challenges.
“We’re quite confident that the decision of the Division of Water Quality will be upheld,” Hartley said.
Company says process
critics dispute claims
Hartley notes that technological advances have not bypassed the energy industry, and he says that Red Leaf’s “EcoShale” process would use the latest innovations to improve the project’s operations.
“[It] is cleaner, more efficient, requires less energy and has a lighter environmental footprint than any oil shale process in the world today,” Hartley said.
To begin with, the company’s process does not involve hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Nor would it need water to run its roasting operations, and any water it produced during the oil extraction process would be captured and recycled, he said.
Hartley compares the process to cooking something inside a Dutch oven.
In this case, each oven would be a bentonite clay-lined pit about the size of a football field and roughly 200 feet deep; the demonstration capsule will be about three-quarters as large, according to Hartley.
Ore in the pits would be covered with clay and soil, and a network of steel pipes in the ground would heat up and slowly roast it on site. As the ore warms up over a months-long process, the rock turns into hydrocarbon-loaded liquids and gases.
In addition to collecting those liquids, Red Leaf plans to capture the synthetic natural gas byproducts and then use them to keep its operations going.
Hartley estimates that the process would generate 10 times as much energy as it uses.
“Because of that, we believe that it will be largely energy self-sustaining,” he said.
Assuming that the demonstration project is a success, the company plans to repeat that process as it works its way across SITLA lands, building an average of six mine capsules per year over the span of two decades.
“It will take us about 20 years to mine through what we have permitted,” Hartley said, adding that each capsule would eventually be reclaimed.
Living Rivers Executive Director John Weisheit worries that the company’s plans to extract oil from that much rock over that much time would require excessive amounts of energy.
“I think that this is like the most destructive energy project ever, and I’m embarrassed that it’s happening in Utah,” Weisheit said.
It’s preposterous, he said, that the company calls its process “EcoShale.”
Red Leaf’s operations would produce “off-the-chart” greenhouse gas emissions that hasten global climate change, while worsening air quality across Utah, Weisheit said.
“It’s going to become the most heavily polluting process in the world,” he alleged.
Although Weisheit and others have wide-ranging concerns about the project, Dubuc said he narrowed their focus to groundwater quality issues.
Weisheit is especially concerned that the bentonite liner in each pit may not keep pollutants from reaching the groundwater table or the surrounding environment.
Red Leaf agreed in June to share its groundwater monitoring data with Living Rivers, and it previously made the same offer to the DWQ. The agency not only declined that offer; it said that groundwater monitoring is “not appropriate” in some instances.
Utah Department of Environmental Quality Public Information Officer Donna Kemp Spangler said the agency cannot comment on the issue due to ongoing litigation.
But during the project permitting phase, the DWQ responded that groundwater monitoring does not always offer “unequivocal evidence” that contaminants have been discharged into an aquifer.
In this case, the agency said it believes that any leachate from the mined shale would actually contain higher-quality water than anything that occurs naturally in the area’s aquifer.
Developer, critics may
never see eye-to-eye
Hartley sees no need to placate environmental activists who say they “will not allow” companies to develop oil shale and tar sands projects in the Book Cliffs.
“If you hate fossil fuels, you’ll never like oil shale,” he said. “But if you recognize that liquid transportation fuels are critical to a vibrant economy, you’ve got to concede that the ‘EcoShale’ process for developing this vast U.S. resource is better than dependence on instable regions like the Middle East or Venezuela.”
Weisheit, however, believes the project’s chief backers have no interest in promoting domestic energy production.
Instead, he maintains that the company’s vendors, including everyone from the region’s food and lodging businesses to steel manufacturers, are pushing the project to rake in Red Leaf’s money.
“These people are just wasting their time, and I resent that,” Weisheit said, adding that if the company wants to promote sustainability and energy independence, it should be building solar panels.