Oil Shale and Tar Sands – Two of the Most Polluting Fuels on the Planet

Rob Dubuc“The proposed development of oil shale and tar sands in Utah poses an imminent threat to the very qualities that make Utah such an amazing and vibrant place.”

– Rob Dubuc, Staff Attorney, Utah Office

Defending Utah from Oil Shale and Tar Sands Development

Western Resource Advocates is the only line of legal defense protecting one of the West’s special places from the strip mining of two of the most polluting fuels on the planet – oil shale and tar sands.  The Book Cliffs of eastern Utah, a biologically, geologically and recreationally rich area of Utah, are being targeted for commercial development of oil shale and tar sands. Fossil fuel development processes for oil shale and tar sands will strip mine the land, destroy wildlife habitat, pollute our air, leave a legacy of toxic waste, accelerate climate change and contaminate water. Western Resource Advocates is the only organization legally challenging the introduction of dirty oil shale and tar sands development in Utah.  Development of oil shale and tar sands does not exist in the United States at this point, and it should never start. Cleaner energy alternatives are already developed that can power our transportation, provide jobs and support our economy.

The good news is that, to date, because of our work, no commercial production of these dirty fuels has yet commenced in the United States. However, over 600,000 acres are available for oil shale and tar sands development in the state of Utah alone, and Western Resource Advocates is looking to defend against this threat in the courts, in state and federal permitting processes, and in the legislature.

What Are Oil Shale and Tar Sands?

Oil shale and tar sands are ancient fossil deposits containing petroleum that, with significant energy, can be converted into transportation fuels.

  • Oil shale is not oil, but a rock that contains a compound called kerogen. It has been calculated that, per ton, oil shale contains one-tenth the energy of crude oil.
  • Tar sands are deposits of mature oil that has transformed into a mixture of sand, clay, and bitumen that can be extracted and processed using vast strip-mining operations. Conversion of either of these inferior hydrocarbons to a usable fuel would generate monumental problems as noted below.

Mountain Top Removal and Strip Mining in Geologically Treasured Area of Book Cliffs

Utah’s precious landscapes and rural way of life are threatened.  Situated in a broad basin south of the Uinta Mountains on the Colorado Plateau, the Book Cliffs area contains some of Utah’s most important wildlife habitat, and a spectacular stretch of the Green River vital to tourism and recreation. The dirty oil shale and tar sands Industry will create devastating disturbances to the land, including more than 50 square miles of the type of mountaintop removal practiced in eastern coal country and strip mining of huge tracts of wild lands. It would leave huge waste piles of crushed rock and toxic material behind for each barrel of oil produced.  These waste piles will be dumped into the environment untreated. This mountain top removal and strip mining industrial development of the Book Cliffs would conflict with recreation, hunting, and clean energy production.

Unacceptable Impacts to Air, Water, Climate and Wildlife

Oil shale and tar sands development would also threaten climate, clean air, clean water and wildlife.

Toxic waste legacy: The spent rock after the heating process of mined shale ore is left on the surface or put back in the mine. The same is true of the spent waste from mined tar sands, which are treated with dangerous solvents. The production of a barrel of oil shale and tar sands can generate up to two tons of waste. The waste materials can consist of several pollutants, some of which are toxic and carcinogenic. These toxic contaminants will survive in the environment indefinitely.

Water contamination: Commercial development poses huge challenges to protecting surface and groundwater quality. The U.S. General Accounting Office noted that oil shale development could have significant impacts on water quality. When these resources are mined and developed, some of the water from the process waste is released into adjacent waters and may contain chemicals and pollutants. In addition, large piles of shale or sands from the process could leach hydrocarbons, salts and trace metals into Utah’s waters.

Harm to wildlife: Oil shale and tar sands leasing can have significant impacts on wildlife over several decades. These impacts include loss, alteration and fragmentation of habitat, wildlife disturbance and displacement, and direct killing of wildlife. Wildlife are also impacted by chronic and acute toxicity from hydrocarbons, solvents and other toxic contaminants used in the mining process.

Water hog in a desert: The federal government and private contractors, such as the RAND Corporation, have concluded that significant amounts of water would be needed to develop oil shale. The arid West is already strained to cover existing water needs; what current use will go offline to supply water to oil shale and tar sands development? Farms and ranches could feel pressure to sell their water rights and dry up existing operations to meet anticipated oil shale and tar sands water demands. Aboveground processing uses between one and five barrels of water per barrel of produced shale oil. Belowground processing uses a half barrel of water per barrel of produced shale oil.  In addition, 1.5 to 2 barrels of water per barrel of oil shale and tar sands are needed for personnel needs and dust suppression.

Increased air pollution: Oil shale and tar sands processing could cause smog (NOx, SOx and volatile organic chemical (VOC) emissions) harming our health, reducing regional visibility, and impacting alpine lakes and vegetation.

Climate change accelerator: Oil shale and tar sands development creates significant emissions of greenhouse gases compared to other traditional fossil fuel sources. The development and use of these fuels would have a carbon footprint 100-300% greater than that of conventional fossil fuels. We cannot afford to bring on this additional source of greenhouse gas pollution when communities, states and countries around the world are striving to reduce our existing global warming emissions.


Relative Carbon Emissions Graphic

FIGURE 7.1 Estimated relative CO2 emissions of alternative sources of hydrocarbon fuels. Source: Farrell and Brandt, 2006.

Alternative Clean Energy Is Available to Power Our Transportation, Create Jobs and Fuel Our Economy

Oil shale and tar sands give an extremely low energy return on investment compared to other energy alternatives such as solar power and wind.

As Utah seeks to grow its economy, we should support a range of renewable energy sources, efficiencies, and modern solutions to meet 21st century challenges instead of falling back on destructive “Stone Age” proposals.

The Scope of this Threat is Staggering

The U.S. tar sands resource has been estimated at 12 to 19 billion barrels of oil, while 800 billion barrels of oil are purported to be locked up in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming oil shale. In the Uintah Basin, the state of Utah has 49,588 acres under active lease for tar sands mining and 89,341 acres under active lease for oil shale mining.  On federal lands, there are 117,738 acres open for tar sands mining and 357,780 acres open for oil shale mining. The total of 614,447 acres is close to the size of Rhode Island.

Western Resource Advocates is Working to Stop Commercial Development of Oil Shale and Tar Sands

Western Resource Advocates is committed to stopping commercial development of these dirty fuels, and we are challenging the state’s authorization of a number of projects.

Litigation is the cornerstone of Western Resource Advocates’ successful strategy in Utah. In addition, we work with federal and state agencies which oversee fossil fuel development to shape sound decisions. If needed, we plan to pursue state or federal legislation. Visit the following pages to learn more about specific projects.



Rob Dubuc

Rob Dubuc

Staff Attorney, Utah Office


Joro Walker

Senior Attorney and Utah Office Director