President and CFO of U.S. Oil Sands, Glenn Snarr espoused the magic formula for green washing, and lowering costs all at once, wherever tar sands mines are sold. Yet, while the chemical engineering of tar sands refining may appear as clean as a whistle, the “concurrent reclamation” process is about as anthropocentrically pompous as Manifest Destiny.
Nonetheless, between the lines, the entire model sounds like nothing more than another scheme for a small company like U.S. Oil Sands to get their foot in the diamond-encrusted door of expensive land leases in Athabasca territory. For over twelve years, the company, which was launched with stakeholder investments of $81 million, has held on firmly to a patent that they attest will one day revolutionize the tar sands industry.
Meanwhile, the world is calling for divest from fossil fuels, and big names are responding, including the world’s largest charities (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and media organizations (The Guardian), the wealthiest of families (Rockefeller) and even the city of Vancouver.
“We want to proceed to the next step which is more, or higher production levels out of Utah, and higher production levels or some production levels out of elsewhere in the world,” Snarr says, about how they will convince companies to jump on board. “It's a huge step in the right direction for the oil sands industry.”
When it comes to social license, the tar sands industry is hurting. Public opposition, however, in the eyes of U.S. Oil Sands, is rife with uneducated hypocrites who are absolute in their anti-development platform. “If you're going to have a balanced economy, and you're going to choose to drive a car, or choose to fly on an airplane, or choose to whatever, you're going to need some oil,” says Snarr, who feels that U.S. Oil Sands holds a silver bullet for a world-weary oil and gas industry, and non-renewable energy-dependent global population.
“There is no real environmental impact, long-term, in what we're doing. We're taking the oil out of the ground, and ultimately replacing soil, and topsoil, and reseeding and leaving the land, effectively, as it was,” Snarr says, convicted that concurrent reclamation should resolve any environmental qualms.
“I just have to wonder if they actually believe the lies they're telling or not. I really don't know. I think they have themselves pretty well deluded,” says activist Melanie Martin, who spoke with solemn poise over the phone from Utah. “I think people get brainwashed and they can go to school for many years to study these things. People just start to think that it's acceptable when institutions are promoting it.”
Martin has lived as a frontline demonstrator in and around the industrial sites in the Uintah Basin for the past two years. Prompted to focus her efforts to stop tar sands mining in Utah after joining the Occupy movement, she is now a seasoned advocacy organizer with Utah Tar Sands Resistance and Peaceful Uprising.
“It took me some time to get more comfortable with the idea of putting myself in a situation where I would likely be arrested for taking civil disobedience,” says Martin, who echoes much of the desperately needed sentiment declared by civil rights activists in history, and around the world today. “Being out on the plateau all summer also pushed me to action,” Martin says, with a heartfelt tone, as she recounts tales from the summer-long vigil held on the land last year, a place that has born its fate as a sacrifice zone. “Getting to know the land, and seeing what was at stake, what is at stake out there, made it hard to not want to intervene in the destruction.” “That vigil to me just really felt like it became the lifeblood of our campaign, and pushed a lot of people toward bolder action,” Martin says. “Because you almost can't help but not take personal risks when you see what's at stake for the land and the water that flows from it.”
As someone with a lot of experience as a grassroots activist in Utah, beginning in guerilla street theater with Occupy Salt Lake, Martin has come to learn of the local people with an especially discerning eye. “There are local folks who are pretty environmentally concerned and often they're afraid to really raise their voices in that town, in that area, because they'll lose respect with a lot of people if they do that,” says Martin, citing what is essentially a microcosm of the relations between U.S. Oil Sands and the state agency that leased 32,000 acres.
It was just really heartbreaking to see the moonscape of the tar sands test pit alongside this lush, super diverse forest just filled with wildlife and to imagine 32,000 acres of that land being claimed by that tar sands and essentially becoming a wasteland where nothing would really grow again, for many centuries…
“There would be a lot of impacts of tar sands mining on the Tavaputs Plateau, any one of which I think should preclude it from happening completely,” says Martin. “There's 40 million water drinkers who rely on the Colorado, and we want to stop this from poisoning them.” “Their water could be poisoned with toxins, that are dangerous in parts per trillion that cause cancers and birth defects and mutations, which is happening in Athabasca,” Martin continues. “We're talking about a project that would claim a huge amount of water from the Colorado River, while also drying up the river further through climate change.”
Martin prioritizes the joint issues of immediate industrial impact and the effects of climate change with a special, ecological and also social intelligence. Environmental concern over the fate of the Colorado River, and the people who depend on it, is crucial, not only for drinking but also for harvesting local wildlife.
When it comes to climate change, Utah has a bold reputation. The state actually passed a resolution to deny climate change as a threat outright. This type of groupthink is interesting in a state where air quality in the capital is likened to that endured in Beijing. “We've been working to publicize that issue in the city here so that more people understand what tar sands is,” says Martin. “That it's not just something happening in the remote Tavaputs [Plateau], but it's something that would be coming to our city.”
The social milieu of Utah is so suppressive that a spike in infant mortality in 2013 nearly silenced the entire oil town of Vernal, which borders the industrial zones of PR Spring. One midwife from the town continues to raise the alarm despite the heart-rending attitude of self-censorship. “I think it's only a matter of time before more and more people out there [in Vernal] start to recognize that,” says Martin. “Especially when people like this local midwife who has lived in the town all her life are talking about it, and getting people thinking a little more about how inviting in the worst of the dirtiest industries in the world maybe isn't the best idea for the health of their families.”
During the court case following the arrest of Martin, and 24 others who demonstrated against the continued U.S. Oil Sands operations in Utah, geo-sciences researcher William Johnson, of the University of Utah, served as an expert witness.
“They've come out to test water in the sacrifice zone area regularly and what they're claiming and what they've been trying to show is that the water would be affected in the way that it's being affected in Canada,” says Martin. “It would be poisoned.”