Stopping Estonian Oil Shale Plant from Polluting Utah and Colorado

Jon Goldin-Dubois“Between increases in renewable energy and improvements in energy efficiency, we don’t need to take on the risks that come with developing these dirty fuels. The damage to our air, water, and our health are not acceptable.”

– Jon Goldin-Dubois, President of Western Resource Advocates.

Enefit Plans to Build an Enormous Dirty Fuel Plant in the Unites States

Enefit is owned by the national government of Estonia (Eesti Energia). This company operates worldwide and processes 17 million tons of oil shale per year to produce shale oil and electricity. Currently they are planning to strip mine oil shale in Utah on private property, state lands, and a federal lease in eastern Utah. The company plans to convert oil shale into kerogen – a transportation fuel – using several industrial processes (called retorts).

The proposed oil shale processing will require 29 million tons of raw oil shale rock per year, which is basically 50,000 tons of rock per day. By comparison, the whole state of Colorado mines approximately 28 million tons of coal annually.

The location for this commercial-scale operation in Utah is twelve miles southeast of Bonanza and 40 miles north of Vernal, and is contiguous to the Colorado state line.

Notably, this proposed commercial-scale oil shale development will use technology that has never been built before and is still at the research and development stage. In order to account for the different physical and chemical properties of the oil shale found in Utah, Enefit will need to adjust the process the company is currently using in Estonia.

Enefit’s Operation Will Be a Massive Environmental and Public Health Disaster

Despite the many uncertainties about Enefit’s proposed new technology, what is known about oil shale activities in Estonia raises serious concerns.

  • Carbon Pollution: Oil shale is dirtier than coal when it comes to carbon pollution. Ninety percent of Estonia’s carbon dioxide emissions come from burning oil shale.
  • Air Pollution: A July 2013 report from the Swedish Air Pollution and Climate Secretariat concludes that Estonia is the largest per capita polluter in the region, and calls on the country to drop oil shale as an energy source. In Utah, the Enefit currently plans to send their dirty kerogen to refineries along the Wasatch Front for processing into transportation fuels. The Wasatch Front already has some of the dirtiest air in the country, causing significant health problems.
  • Gigantic Ash Waste Piles Seen from Space that Spontaneously Combust: In northeastern Estonia, towering mounds of gray shale ash are visible from space. Locals refer to these barren hills, which cover 50 square miles, as the “Estonian Alps.” Petroleum coke buried in one of these gigantic piles spontaneously ignited in 2013.
  • Water Hogs in a Desert: The oil shale sector in Estonia uses four times more water annually than the rest of Estonia combined. Water is a precious resource in Utah, and where the water will come from for this massive operation is unknown.

Western Resource Advocates is Challenging this Polluting Plant Every Step of the Way

Western Resource Advocates is tracking every environmental permit Enefit will need to obtain from state and federal agencies. We are submitting legal comments on environmental permits with a coalition that includes the Grand Canyon Trust, Living Rivers, Sierra Club, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Conservation Colorado. We are working to engage members of Congress, the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Park Service to protect state and national interests from this operation. We are also increasing the public’s awareness of the implications of such a massive, dirty plant being established in Utah.

Currently, Western Resource Advocates is challenging a right-of-way Enefit needs to construct across BLM land in order to bring gas, power and water to their private property. Western Resource Advocates is participating in the Environmental Impact Statement process that must be completed before BLM can approve Enefit’s right-of-way. In addition to the impacts from constructing the right-of-way, BLM must take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of Enefit’s proposal overall, including cumulative impacts of the project as well as impacts to threatened and endangered species.

Allowing the construction of huge, polluting, industrial-scale retorts in order to process oil shale is the wrong policy choice for the BLM and the state of Utah to make. Western Resource Advocates is committed to protecting our air, water and lands from being blighted with the type of legacy pollution the company has produced in Estonia. At its peak, this proposal will likely produce more climate changing pollution than any other plant in America, will use tremendous amounts of precious water, and will generate massive amounts of air pollution in an area already shown to be out of compliance with federal clean air regulations.


Project Staff

Rob Dubuc

Rob Dubuc

Staff Attorney, Utah Office

Joro Walker

General Counsel