Eastern Utah has the largest oil sands formation in the U.S. as well as extensive oil shale rock resources. This is unlike the shale oil extracted from the Bakken formation near the North Dakota and Saskatchewan border. The Utah deposits have never been economically viable, but a combination of advances in technology and higher crude prices has led to several new proposals for open pit mines in and around the Uinta Basin.
Among the most aggressive proponents are Calgary based US Oil Sands Inc and Enefit American Oil, the U.S. unit of Estonia’s state-run utility. But both companies’ projects have triggered fierce opposition from environmental groups and a healthy dose of skepticism from critics who doubt their viability.
US Oil Sands, which raised $80 million in financing in Canada this fall, expects to produce up to 10,000 barrels per day using a citrus-based (orange peels) solvent to separate heavy oil embedded in sand. Solvents are something of a holy grail because they hold the promise of dramatically reducing the amount of hot water currently needed to melt away oil from sand. But they’re still an unproven technology and even the world’s largest oil sands producers have yet to adopt them widely. These have attracted more local opposition than traditional oil drilling because they rely on open pit surface mines that are anathema to conservationists.
In northern Alberta’s much larger oil sands, for example, Cenovus Energy Inc. doesn’t plan to start test production with the first regulator-approved solvent-aided process until 2017. But officials at venture US Oil Sands are convinced they’ve come up with an environmentally-inert solvent derived from orange peels that will allow it to start producing in early 2015.
Some company’s backers initially planned to start producing as far back as 2006, but have hit a number of financing and regulatory snags along the way. Today, leases near Utah’s picturesque Book Cliffs are a flash point for environmentalists who have filed court appeals to null state approvals.
Will a boom in oil production in Utah increase the state’s output to the highest level in 25 years? Will orange peel solvent give a lift to more exotic plays recovering petroleum trapped in sand and hard shale rock. Time and crude oil prices will be a big part of the answer to using orange peels to give oil independence back to the U.S.
Will the state of Utah open its arms because there is 20 or 30 billion barrels of resources that nobody’s figured out how to develop and yield a profit?
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