Another 'Alberta apocalypse'?

A Calgary start-up with the rights to America’s own oil sands has environmentalists fuming

Glen Snarr

Earth Energy Resources Inc. is a private Calgary start-up with eight employees and no cash flow. As energy firms go, it’s basically a garage band—one struggling, so far unsuccessfully, for a crumb of scarce capital with which to do business.

Yet to hear some American environmentalists talk, one would think the company was an instrument of Satan. Phrases like “horrifying and unprecedented,” “blatantly criminal,” “extremely destructive environmentally,” and “the Alberta apocalypse” are being used to describe its plans.

Earth Energy Resources has the first-ever complete set of lease titles and permits for a commercial oil sands mine in the United States—a prospect that has U.S. greens girding for battle. But let there be no confusion about what “large scale” means in this context. If EER can find the $35 million it’s looking for, it envisions producing about 2,000 barrels of oil a day from a small modular plant near Moab, Utah, amidst 7,800 acres of state land (situated not very far from classic badlands settings familiar to any fan of westerns). That’s about what Alberta’s oil sands produce every two minutes.

It’s a little-known fact that the United States has oil sands deposits, with Utah containing the most significant supplies—an estimated eight to 12 million proven barrels of extractable heavy crude, with a possibility of 23 to 32 billion in all. The Utah oil sands have sometimes been put to use as road asphalt, as Alberta’s occasionally were for a half-century. EER wants to help Utah take the same step Alberta did and produce refinable petroleum from them.

It’s not a simple proposition, but EER’s proposal hinges on its distinctive extraction process. In Alberta, techniques for getting oil out of bitumen are dependent on enormous quantities of hot water and mechanical energy, and involve the use of massive, ugly tailings ponds where water, clay and leftover gunk are left to settle. EER boasts of a patent-pending recovery technique devised by a tinkerer named Kevin Ophus, who used to clean oil tanks for a living and thus knows much about detergents, solvents, and, in general, breaking carboniferous crud into its components.

The Ophus Process uses a proprietary solvent to liberate the oil from the sand, reducing the need for massive water supplies or energy-intensive physical shaking. (Company president Glen Snarr says the secret ingredient is an agricultural by-product, but it’s not ethanol or anything else that competes with the food supply.) No wet tailings are produced. At the end of the process, oil, sand, water and solvent are left happily separate, and the Ophus mini-plant can be trucked away, leaving the habitat largely unmarred.

The idea has been demonstrated on a small scale at Ophus’s lab near Grande Prairie, and the Utahan regulators have been convinced of its relative ecological innocuousness. The Republican-dominated state, which already has a conventional oil and gas industry, is eager to move up the ladder of non-conventionality when it comes to oil, and become a centre of next-generation research and jobs.

Over the years, the world outside Canada has been slow to recognize oil sands as an economically viable energy source; eco-alerts about our technologically maturing “Mordor” may, paradoxically, have proven to be a major engine of awareness about the potential value of Utah’s large reserves. If there is really no such thing as bad publicity, opponents of Earth Energy Resources’ scheme may be the friendliest enemies a company ever had.

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