By Ben Jervey
Think that that dirtiest oil on the planet is only found up in Alberta? You might be surprised then to hear that there are tar sands deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, much of which are on public lands.
While none of the American tar sands deposits are actively being developed yet, energy companies are frantically working to raise funds, secure approvals and start extracting.
To help you better understand the state of tar sands development in the U.S., here’s a primer.
Where are the American tar sands?
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that there are between 12-19 billion barrels of tar sands oil, mostly in Eastern Utah, though not all of that would be recoverable.
This map from the Utah Geologic Survey shows all of the state’s tar sands.
This map from the BLM’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) shows where the U.S. government’s “designated tar sands areas” are located. These are the areas that could, if approved, be developed.
The state of play
Some state-owned lands in Utah have already been approved for speculation, but because of prohibitive costs and limited access, so far only test wells have been drilled.
In 2008, the BLM made roughly 431,000 acres of federal lands potentially available for tar sands leasing and development.
Last spring, the BLM decided to take another look, as new information about the potential impacts on these areas has come to light. Significantly, it also called to reduce leasable tar sands deposits from the 431,000 acres to “just” 91,000 acres.
On Feb. 2, the agency released a Draft PEIS of these so-called “resource management plans,” and that environmental impact statement is now open to public comment until May 4, 2012. Find out more about the EIS and the public comment period at the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS Information Center website.
Tar sands vs. oil shale
The resource management plans and the EIS don’t only address tar sands development, but also oil shale. It’s important to make the distinction here between the two, as the plight of Alberta has made many familiar with tar sands, but oil shale—which has far greater potential for domestic development—is not as well understood.
Here’s how the BLM defines the two:
Oil shale is a term used to describe a wide range of fine-grained, sedimentary rocks that contain solid bituminous materials called kerogen. It should not be confused with “shale oil,” which is not addressed by the draft PEIS. Kerogen, which is organic matter derived mainly from aquatic organisms, releases petroleum-like liquids when subjected to extremely high temperatures—more than 750 degrees. Developers have been trying to produce oil from this rock in an economically-viable way for more than a century. The majority of U.S. oil shale (and the world’s largest oil shale deposit) is found in the Green River Formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Tar sands are sedimentary rocks containing a heavy hydrocarbon compound called bitumen. They can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. However, unlike the oil sands deposits in Canada, oil is not currently produced from tar sands on a significant commercial level in the U.S. Additionally, the U.S. tar sands are hydrocarbon wet, whereas the Canadian oil sands are water wet. This difference means that U.S. tar sands will require different processing techniques.
In this post, we’re focusing on tar sands, but we will explore the oil shale component in a future post.
Who is making a play?
Curiously, the Big Oil developers of tar sands in Alberta have thus far stayed out of Utah. Experts believe that they’re letting smaller companies explore the early stages and determine the economic viability, which is far from certain.
As of today, there are two companies that have taken the lead on U.S. tar sands development.
U.S. Oil Sands has drilled roughly 180 test wells at the PR Spring Special Tar Sands Area in the Uinta Basin. The PR Spring Tar Sands is located on state-owned land near Arches National Park. U.S. Oil Sands Inc is awaiting approval from Utah state environmental regulators to begin producing oil, which they hope to do by 2013. The state lands the company is developing are surrounded by federal lands that the company also hopes to lease.
U.S. Oil Sands claims to use a more “environmentally-friendly” form of bitumen extraction that uses a citrus-based solvent to mine the tar sands.
MCW Energy: Another Canadian company (though their tag line somewhat dubiously reads, “American oil for America”), MCW is sitting on roughly 1,000 tons of tar sands just three miles west of Vernal, Utah. They are awaiting approval to run pilot tests using their own proprietary solvent.
(If you know of others, please let us know in the comments and we’ll update this resource page.)
What’s the problem?
Well, first, there’s the fact that between the extraction, processing and combustion of tar sands oil, it's the most carbon intensive fuel on the planet. But, locally, there are issues as well. One of the biggest, especially in the arid Southwest, is water scarcity.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report (pdf) that condemned the BLM’s plans to open up so much public land to oil shale and tar sands development, warning of water shortages.
The Colorado Riverkeep group, Living Rivers, is opposed to the projects as well, citing water as their chief concern.
A September 2010 report by Western Resource Advocates, Fossil Foolishness: Utah's Pursuit of Tar Sands and Oil Shale (pdf) rebutted industry claims that 95 percent of the water used would be recycled, explaining that that figure didn’t account for power generation on site, refining and other demands.
But perhaps the best collection of concerns for oil shale and tar sands development come from the development-friendly Utah state government itself.
Living Rivers dug up a memo from Dr. Laura Nelson to former Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. discussing the “impediments” to large-scale oil shale development. At the time of the December 2006 memo, Nelson was serving as Gov. Huntsman's energy advisor. (Nelson went on to become vice president, Energy and Environmental Development at an oil shale company, Red Leaf Resources.)
It’s worth quoting in full the list of "impediments" discussed in the 2006 memo:
- “Technology for commercial development of both oil shale and tar sands is basically unproven … there are no definite results available that demonstrate commercial viability.”
- “Long-term market prices for crude oil at current levels are not guaranteed. Also, purchases of kerogen are not assured. Price supports and purchase guarantees may be needed to obtain and continue investor participation in tar sands and oil shale technologies.”
- “Both air and water quality issues may be proposed that cause pollution to reach critical levels and need further examination.”
- “Water sources need consolidation so that a reliable and consistent supply is available in the development areas. No specific water supply is set out in preliminary plans for OS/TS development and technologies are still developing. While water supplies are generally available, consolidation needs to be done.”
- “Infrastructure in the way of housing, roads, utilities and the essential services for workers are lacking at current levels and supplies need to be improved. These are items needing work from both local government and State government.”
- “Available trained labor in the local areas may be limited. … Competition for labor is an inevitability when other industries are working in full force.”
- “Transportation of both raw and refined product as well as workers needs to be assured … transportation is a large enough concern to be in a category of its own.”
- “Refining capacity in the Uintah Basin and in the State as a whole is lacking. As previously discussed, the need for a refinery that will refine more black wax crude oil is already apparent. The entry of kerogen into the mix of supply causes one to consider this an issue with real impact.”
The public comment period for the BLM’s Draft PEIS closes on May 4. Then the BLM will take those comments into account and will revise the statement. The Final PEIS is expecting in October, and that will be followed by a 30-day public comment period. Considering that final statement, land-use plans will be finalized by December.
The BLM site has information about how to submit a comment, contact the local BLM office, and other ways to get involved, as well as a useful FAQ section about both oil shale and tar sands development in Utah.
Tar sands development in Utah is not a foregone conclusion. The state lands already available to companies aren’t big enough to justify extraction investment. If lease sales of federal lands are approved, companies will likely start mining.
For more information, visit the sites of these organizations working on the issue:
For the visual learners and fans of YouTube videos, here is Western Resource Advocates' "Fossil Foolishness" video:
For more information, click here.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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