Late last year, some key news got lost in the busy holiday season. On December 20th, the state of Utah approved a water permit for an oil shale mine owned and operated by Red Leaf Resources. For those unfamiliar with oil shale, it’s not actually oil, but a rock that contains a waxy substance called kerogen. Red Leaf would have you believe that oil shale is ready for the market, and the permit was the last remaining obstacle to economic viability. It’s no surprise the company was more than happy to gift wrap its permit and bury it in shiny tinsel, because the facts plainly say otherwise. We’re holding Utah and its friends in industry accountable for the truth.
1. The last major hurdle to oil shale production has been removed.
Fact: Not true. The Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) approved a groundwater discharge permit for a small test facility, called the Early Production System (EPS). If, and only if, that system proves economically viable and protective of human health and the environment can Red Leaf submit an application for a commercial development permit (called a “large mining permit”).
2. Red Leaf’s impacts will be minimal, and the process will not affect water quality.
Fact: Not true. Red Leaf has not developed this prototype; its 2009 prototype was 1/7th the size and utilized a different technology. The purpose of the EPS is to answer numerous questions about the technical viability of the EcoShale process, and to determine if development would impact water quality and other public resources. To conclude that the impacts will be minimal and that the process will not affect water quality is baseless and highly premature.
3. The state imposed robust monitoring requirements, including requiring Red Leaf to maintain monitoring wells.
Fact: Not true. The State rejected common-sense proposals that would have required Red Leaf to install a water monitoring system. The State is also not requiring the company to prove that the capsule will not leak, that groundwater will not be impacted, and that hazardous waste will not flow into the environment. Municipal landfills in the vicinity of aquifers have to meet a higher, more rigorous, standard.
4. Red Leaf will be the first commercial oil shale development in the United States.
Fact: Not true. Red Leaf does not have a commercial development permit so it is incorrect to refer to this facility as a commercial facility. Red Leaf has a permit to test a new technology that may or may not prove technically and economically viable. The EPS is simply a prototype.
5. This plant is a demonstration plant, not a commercial facility.
Fact: True. However, as a prototype, Red Leaf is under no requirement to determine whether the capsule will hold up as designed, and no monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of the design is required. Similarly, while the sole purpose of this prototype is to determine whether the technology can work, Utah State regulators have rejected common-sense permit conditions that would let the public know whether water will be protected.
Key facts about the permit
This permit is for non-federal lands in Utah. In 2009, Red Leaf developed a 1-acre test facility under its small mining permit. Having declared that test successful, the company then submitted a large mining permit to State regulators. That permit was for 118 10-acre capsules. In July 2012, Red Leaf agreed to settle a challenge brought by WRA. Settlement required the state to withdraw its approval of the large mining permit. Later in 2012, Red Leaf submitted a request to modify its small mining permit to allow the company to develop the EPS. The EPS is roughly 7 acres, or 70% of the size of a commercial-scale capsule. On December 20, 2013, Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ) issued the groundwater discharge permit for the EPS, allowing the company to proceed with developing its prototype.
DOGM is Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. DOGM is one of two Utah regulatory agencies involved in this process; the other is DWQ.