Low oil prices, not environmental protests thwart PR Spring tar sands project

Utah’s PR Spring is supposed to be the world’s first tar sands mine that uses and re-uses solvents to extract bitumen, a gummy hydrocarbon that is found in great abundance under the Uinta Basin. US Oil SandsPR Spring-aerial had nearly completed the mine and processing plant when two key contractors shut their Utah operations because of falling oil prices, accomplishing what years of environmental protests could not. The project is on indefinite hold.

Utah public lands deal meets firestorm

In what they characterized as a sweeping gesture of compromise, Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz unveiled their plan to resolve decades of deadlock over how eastern Utah’s public lands are managed even as environmental and tribal groups declared the proposal “dead on arrival” and a shameless giveaway to oil and gas interests.

On Jan. 20 at the state’s Capitol, the Republican congressmen released a “discussion draft” of a bill that would set aside special landscapes like Cedar Mesa, San Rafael Swell and Labyrinth Canyon, while expediting mineral development in areas deemed less worthy of protection.

“There is something here for everyone to like and something for everyone to hate,” Bishop said, “but if you look at the totality of what we are doing, it is moving us so far forward, there is value in it.”

Lake Canyon





An oil well in Lake Canyon in Utah’s Duchesne County. Photo by Brian Maffly

The Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, or PLI, crafted after 1,200 meetings hosted by Bishop and Chaffetz over the past three years, “is rooted in the belief that conservation and economic development can coexist and make Utah a better place to live, work, and visit,” their offices wrote in a summary of the bill that would affect 18 million acres of public land in seven counties.

The draft envisions 4.3 million acres of conservation designations, including 1.1 million for a Bears Ears National Conservation Area. But the tribes pushing for protections of sacred lands around San Juan County’s Cedar Mesa called the gestures “a slap in the face.”


Drilling headed to Utah’s Uintas

Nearly 65,000 acres on the Uinta Mountains’ North Slope have been leased for oil and gas. Now a Texas company wants to drill an exploratory well on an old lease that has been “unitized” with a large block of leases around Gilbert Creek and Smith Fork. The story of the so-called Platte Petroleum projectBlacks Fork shows how federal leasing can encumber natural landscapes for decades with the threat of energy development. The U.S. Forest Service is completing an environmental assessment of the exploratory project, but conservationists want a much more thorough analysis. — Brian Maffly

Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Utah’s coal ash legacy

Coal ash is the nation’s largest waste stream of hazardous substances, totaling 121 million tons last year, most of it generated an electrical generating power stations. Although ash, laded with toxic heavy metals, poses a threat to the environment, this wast is not well regulated and exempt from many rules that apply to most dangerous waste.

Ash long stored near Utah power plants is contaminating nearby water resources, environmental groups allege. According to a letter HEAL Utah sent to PacifiCorp, Utah’s largest utility, its Huntington Power Plant is illegally impounding water that flows from two canyons and picks up dangerous pollutants found in coal ash and other combustion residues.Huntington


Photo by Brian Maffly.
PacifiCorp’s Huntingon Power Plant in central Utah landfills millions of tons of coal ash on site. Runoff from these landfills is used to irrigate the “research” fields pictured here on the banks of Huntington Creek, according to report by HEAL Utah.

“They botched the disposal operation from the start. They throw the waste into unlined landfills that have leaked all over the place,” says attorney Richard Webster of the nonprofit law firm Public Justice. “They have a number of [state] permits in place that should have addressed this issue. Instead of enforcing these conditions, the state allowed them to move the contamination around.”

The utility contends the HEAL allegations are the based on incorrect assumptions.

Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune

Saving Monroe Mountain’s aspen

For one of Utah’s largest aspen communities to rebound and thrive, the U.S. Forest Service says, parts of Monroe Mountain must burn.

Forest Service officials hope to restore aspen in this 175,000-acre patch of Fishlake National Forest through prescribed burning, logging conifers and improved management of the livestock and big game that eat aspen shoots before they can become trees. Flames could be the cheapest and most effective means for clearing out fir-choked stands and triggering the rebirth of aspen, according to Richfield District Ranger Jason Kling.

His plan was finalized Monday after years of analysis and collaborative planning. But it’s not sitting well with ranchers who fear it could lead to grazing restrictions, and some environmentalists, who say it promotes logging on thousands of roadless acres, including areas proposed for protection as wilderness.


DSC_0250Photo by Brian Maffly

Still, the Monroe Mountain Aspen Ecosystems Restoration Project has broad support from state and federal agencies, surrounding municipalities and some conservation groups. Officials hope the 10-year program will reverse aspen forests’ decline without displacing livestock or the elk and mule deer herds that are prized by sportsmen.

Aspen forests are among the West’s signature ecosystems, yet they have been in steep decline thanks to decades of fire suppression and browsing by hungry hooved munchers, both wild and domestic, and more recently from drought and climate change. –Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune

Will gelding help BLM’s wild horse woes?

Federal land managers, struggling to keep wild horse populations in check on Western rangelands, hope contraception will serve as an alternative to the costly and ultimately ineffective practice of warehousing horses for life on private pastures.


Horse advocates generally support fertility control, but they say a new research proposal targeting a Utah herd for castration goes too far.

The Bureau of Land Management wants to explore what happens when most of a herd’s adult males are gelded and is now reviewing a proposed five-year study that would be conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado State University. Researchers would neuter wild stallions in the Conger Herd Management Area 70 miles west of Delta.

Critics say returning neutered males to the range is inhumane and a violation of federal law protecting free-roaming wild horses; a castrated horse no longer behaves like a wild horse and could get sick and lazy, or even die from the procedure. Nor will this research generate useful findings, according to Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

–Brian Maffly

Utah’s first ‘utility-scale’ solar

Utah’s first large utility-scale solar has gone on-line on private land west of Parowan. The 80-megawatt Utah Red Hills Renewable Park, part of a solar-energy construction boom expected to increase the state’s generating capacity by 915 megawatts.Red Hills

Photo by Brian Maffly

The Norwegian firm Scatec Solar built and operates the project’s 340,700 photovoltaic panels on 632 private acres. The $188 million project is capable of generating 210 million kilowatt hours a year, enough to power 18,500 homes, but it will soon be eclipsed by larger solar farms slated for Utah’s sunbathed southwest corner.

Under a 20-year agreement, Rocky Mountain Power will purchase this power. Utah’s largest utility will also purchase power from about 20 other projects under development in Iron, Beaver and Millard counties.

Brian Maffly reports in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Los lobos in Utah? No way, Jose, states say.

Four Western states are attacking the credibility of key scientists helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s revise a long out-dated recovery plan for seriously imperiled Mexican gray wolf.

Mexican-Wolf-AGFDUtah Wildlife Board Chairman John Bair says that no evidence will ever convince him that Mexican wolves should be allowed in Utah, even though top wolf biologists believe the Canis lupus subspecies can’t be saved unless its recovery zone extend north of Interstate 40.

“People want to use the wolf as the silver bullet to kill the culture of the West,” Bair, a gifted auctioneer and self-proclaimed “Mormon redneck,” told the board Wednesday. “There is no need to have them here other than those political reasons.”

Utah might be harbor unoccupied wolf habitat, rich with prey animals, but the states claim 90 percent of the the Mexican wolf’s historic range is in Mexico. Officials here say the FWS’s science panel is driven by personal agendas to expand the scope of Mexican wolf recovery.

Critics say the state is driving its own agenda that puts politics and emotion above science and the law, Brian Maffly reports in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Ruling opens legal can of worms for Utah rivers

Brady Willison on Tuesday fishes Provo angler a stretch of the Upper Provo that cuts through the 7,000-acre Victory Ranch, a luxury destination near Francis. Until a Nov. 4 court ruling invalidating Utah’s restrictive stream access law, such streams were not available to anglers without property owners’ permission. Stream access advocates successfully sued Victory Ranch, claiming that the landowners’ practice of keeping non-guests off the river violates an easement the public has to stream beds. But without further guidance from the court, the scope of that easement is not clear, lawyers say. Victory Ranch insists the ruling should be stayed pending its appeal, which it expects to win. Brian Maffly reports on the legal tensions arising from this landmark case in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Great Salt Lake bioherms


Geologist Mike Vanden Berg of the Utah Geological Survey investigates Great Salt Lake’s microbialites. These domed structures cover about 386 square miles, or nearly 23 percent of the lake’s bed, and offer a glimpse of what the Earth was like for its first 3 billion years.

In a video, Bonnie Baxter, a biologist with Utah’s Westminster College, explains how cyanobacteria form microbialites and their imporant role in the lake’s ecosystem. The Natural History Museum of Utah will incorporate a specimen into a new exhibit. —Brian Maffly, Salt Lake Tribune