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Oil Sands Impacts Prompt Criticism, Defense

One hundred North American scientists are calling for a moratorium on oil sands projects. They say oil sands projects and pipelines damage the environment, and they want new projects stopped.

Their statement comes at a time when a controversial oil sands operation is being built in Utah over the objections of local scientists, who question its impact on water.

The Canadian company U.S Oil Sands says it’s pressing forward with the PR Spring mine in eastern Utah. Barclay Cuthbert, the Canadian company’s vice president of operations, disputes the logic behind the call for a moratorium.

“With the estimates we’ve done,” says Cuthbert, “we feel we can actually decrease the carbon intensity of fuels produced in the U.S. by our process because we’re making improvements to the way bitumen is produced.”

Work continues on the PR Springs mine, and Cuthbert says plans are to be pumping oil a day by the year’s end – up to 2,000 barrels a day with a gentler environmental impact than the Canadian mines.

Meanwhile, a team of Utah-based scientists recently published a paper disputing a main finding of the state regulators who approved the PR Spring project. Bill Johnson is a University of Utah geologist, the paper’s lead author and critic of the project.

“Basically, the state has gone forward under the assumption that there’s no possible impact to groundwater,” he says. “ I think we’ve shown pretty clearly there is a potential impact to groundwater.”

In light of his team’s findings, Johnson says state regulators should require the oil sands mine to monitor water and take other protective measures at PR Spring.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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