“Something gravely important had gone missing. Something related to reverence—to holding on to the ineffable wonder of what already is, caring for what little remains, being cognizant of how quickly we’re losing it. As we attempt to develop new energy sources and figure out how to feed ourselves and inhabit this warming world, we need to remember what, apart from technological worship, drops us to our knees.” (Meera Subramanian*)
In August my partner Brian Roller, a photographer, and I set off in our old Volvo to the Tavaputs Plateau in eastern Utah. Our destination was PR Springs, a tiny campground on BLM land in the Utah high desert. The campground itself sits in a lush valley of mixed Aspen, conifer and sagebrush. As the name suggests, this valley is spring fed. It is this presence of water that allows for the unique ecosystem and abundant wildlife found there, and it is largely representative of the landscape as a whole; high desert, sage grass plains intercut with lush spring fed valleys. The land here has one of the highest concentrations of big game in the West and supports one of the healthiest populations of black bears in the lower 48. Because of this, it has been referred to as the Serengeti of the West.
Utah is my home. The Tavaputs Plateau, the Book Cliffs, the Green River, the Utah desert are the many memories of my childhood. I have a love and reverence for the landscapes here, for the ‘desert solitaire’. PR Springs is a vast and beautiful landscape comprised of a patchwork of color; khaki-grey sandstones are dusted with lemon-lime inspired lichen. The crisp bright silver green of the aspen leaf is reflected and desaturated into the almost-grey of sage brush, while the indigo violet sky forces the nuclear orange of the sun into submission, and in doing so gives birth to the milky way. It is truly a beautiful and inspiring place. Sadly, PR springs also lays claim to being the first site in the United States to begin the process for the extraction of tar sands. This was the story we had come for.
When you hear “tar sands” you think Canada, or the Keystone XL pipeline; you think of distant people and places. They have received massive attention here in the U.S. from grassroots organizers, the media and politicians. What’s less known is that tar sands mining is already here – the notorious Alberta oil fields have come home. Even more hidden: Utah is ground zero.
US Oil Sands, a Canadian-based company, plans to open the first large U.S. tar sands mine in the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah. The company has leased 32,000 acres of trust land from Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Land (SITLA). The company has been granted all the permits they need, and have begun construction. They can begin processing tar after submitting a water-monitoring plan in November . SITLA is a paradox: designed to provide funds in perpetuity from resources that are by definition not perpetual. Tar Sands mining is perhaps the most environmentally destructive form of mining. Once the land is strip mined, it can no longer be considered an asset to present or future generations. Tar sands require energy-intensive processes and large quantities of water and soil to turn the land into commercially viable fuel; a fuel that burns dirtier than conventional crude oil – releasing more carbon, heavy and toxic metals, and sulphur into the air.
Leasing trust lands for tar sands generates short-term profits for a small few and long-term impacts for many. When the oil is gone, who will flip the bill to restore the land? If history tells us anything, it is will be local residents, Utah taxpayers. We are already financing it: through the leasing of public, Indian reservation and trust lands, subsidies, tax breaks, our Commons, our health. While the industry does provide short-term jobs for local community members, over the longer-term communities are paying more than they are getting; community funds from oil and gas royalties are spent on infrastructure for the companies, not the community. Uinta County built an $86.5 million “road to nowhere”, using the Mineral Lease Fund to turn a gravel road into a 40 ft highway, which improved access to the tar sands mine but likely did little for local community members and hunters who use the area. SITLA’s trust lands contribute to ~1% of the total public education budget, but compare that to the 100% tax refund of state taxes that the oil shale and tar sands manufacturers can receive annually for up to 20 years.
There are resisters. Even in Utah people are emerging. They too are hidden, but they are resolved. They are defending the land for all of us. Brian and I went to the site to serve as their witness, to tell you of our unsung heroes. We are adding our voice and resistance to theirs.
We arrive at their basecamp and headquarters of the Utah Tar Sands Resistance group (UTSR) in the early afternoon. We’re greeted with giant smiles from the two activists who have been living here, in a tent, for almost 5 months. Largely on their own, with the tireless support of UTSR members and other climate justice allies, they have taken it upon themselves to be the first line of defense against US Oil Sands, the Canadian corporation leading the assault on the Book Cliffs wilderness area. As UTSR states, “the role of the permanent protest vigil is to provide a constant presence in the area, which is being threatened by not only several tar sands and oil shale strip-mines, but also by further fracking development, mining, and numerous new infrastructure projects, such as a highway, pipelines, and even proposed rail.” In order for them to monitor the actions of US Oil Sands and ensure compliance with the (weak) regulations already in place, the activists have essentially given their lives to this, spending the better part of the past three years holding a mobile encampment to monitor and document the projects and their impacts, as well as the beauty of the land.
In the wake of a massive toxic waste spill into the Animas River, Peaceful Uprising held a nonviolent direct action with the intention of disrupting work at the tar sands mine. Their nonviolent and transparent actions are planned to raise awareness and delay operations, not to interfere with the livelihoods of workers. And their direct actions work. Their action this summer stopped construction for the day and US Oil Sands stock went down 17%. Past actions have stopped construction as well, though not without arrests and charges ranging from trespassing to felony riot and conspiracy to commit escape charges.
Central in both groups’ organizing is the recognition of environmental racism inherent in these projects, many of which are on or adjacent to Indian lands.
SEHN partnered with Peaceful Uprising to put on the first Women’s Congress for Future Generations in Moab, UT. SEHN’s strengths emerge in coalitions and partnerships. Our ideas, coupled with Peaceful Uprising and UTSR’s resolve and action are a winning combination. The question is whether we still have time.
And so we take pause to honor the young activists defending school lands for the next generation, the land defenders putting their bodies on the line to protect the Commons, the present generations who are doing this work for our grandchildren and their grandchildren, for all of us.
As we gather our things to leave, we promise we will be back. We look out across the newly paved, double lane highway – odd in itself to see a massive scar upon the landscape. In stark contrast to the beauty, color, and abundance around us, the tar sands extraction test site sits brown, dusty, and void of life. Prefab buildings, heavy machinery, a fresh tar-oozing wound adorned this ten acre plot, which had been created by literally bulldozing all previous life into the surrounding valleys. We console ourselves with talking about dropping oil prices, but under all our humor, cynicism, and hope is sadness: I wonder if I’m saying goodbye for the last time? But, I remember, it isn’t gone yet and this grassroots organizing isn’t over. I remember also, as we drive away, that we have something special: a place that ‘drops us to our knees’.
With help from Brian Roller
[*] Meera Subramanian, “The Age of Loneliness”, Guernica Magazine, September 15, 2015. Published online: https://www.guernicamag.com/features/the-age-of-loneliness/
 A monitoring plan from the Department of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM) is now required after hearing testimony of new data collected in the area. The mine had been permitted under the assumption there was no hydrologic connection and no groundwater. The core samples used to acquire this data were not intended for testing water. The data from the springs demonstrates that there is a connection. As Dr. Johnson, responsible for the new data (professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and president of the Academic Senate, at the University of Utah) clarified in an op ed, what these findings mean is that it is no longer reasonable to assume there is a lack of impact on springs from mining, processing, and disposal. “To their great credit”, Johnson points out DOGM’s John Baza considered the new information and decided, based on that new information, to require a water-monitoring of the springs — “a prudent, conservative, economic and intelligent approach for protection of local water resources”. A plan is required by November 2015. The recent decision to require water monitoring in the springs of the canyons near the tar sands mine was “hailed as a win for environmentalists”. Dr. Johnson put it differently, saying of the new data: it’s a win for science.
The reference for the peer-reviewed paper is: Johnson W.P., L.E. Frederick, M.R. Millington, D. Vala, B.K. Reese, D.R. Freedman, C.J. Stenten, J.S. Trauscht, C.E. Tingey, D.K. Solomon, D.P. Fernandez, G.J. Bowen, 2015, Potential impacts to perennial springs from tar sand mining, processing, and disposal on the Tavaputs Plateau, Utah, USA, Science of the Total Environment, 532, 20-30,http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.05.127. This paper is also being reproduced in an upcoming Guidebook by the Utah Geological Association titled: The Uinta Basin and Uinta Mountains.