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Oil from Sand: Boon or Bane?

Sept. 18, 2006 — Technical, environmental, legal and financial issues surrounding the production of petroleum products from oil sands in Utah and Wyoming will be explored during a forum this Thursday, Sept. 21 at the University of Utah.

News media are invited to cover the Western U.S. Oil Sands Conference, which will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Rice-Eccles Stadium Tower. Non-media conference attendees must pay a $65 fee.

But a 7 p.m. lecture by John McDougal, president of Canada’s Alberta Research Council, is free and open to the public. His lecture is titled, “Producing Oil in a Carbon Constrained World” and will deal with whether oil can be produced from oil sands without further aggravating the problem of global warming caused by industrial emissions of carbon dioxide gas.

“This conference is to provide information to the community about the state of oil sands development in the western United States,” says Philip J. Smith, professor and chair of chemical engineering and director of the Utah Heavy Oil Center at the University of Utah. “Essentially all the oil sands in the United States are in Utah, particularly eastern Utah’s Book Cliffs and Uinta Basin areas.”

Rising energy costs and uncertainties in foreign crude oil supplies are refocusing attention on domestic oil production. The western United States has large amounts of unconventional “heavy oil” – which is very viscous and dense – in the form of oil shale and oil sands, which also are known as tar sands.

Unlike “sweet crude” oil that simply is pumped from the ground, oil from oil shale and oil sands must be extracted by surface mining, although the injection of steam, water or chemicals and the application of heat also have been used recently to produce oil from deeper deposits. In most cases, heavy oil must be processed with heat and hydrogen into synthetic crude oil before it can be refined into gasoline and other products.

While some oil is being developed from oil shale in China and Estonia, Canada’s Alberta province has developed oil sands since the late 1980s, and now produces about 1 million barrels of synthetic crude oil per day from oil sands – one-twentieth of the roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day consumed by the United States, Smith says.

He says most of the Canadian synthetic crude derived from oil sands now goes to refiners in the Chicago, Salt Lake City and Seattle areas.

Canada plans to produce 5 million barrels daily from oil sands, so “there is a potential in the next several years that one-quarter of the oil used in the United States will come from oil sands out of western Canada,” he adds.

Some oil sands deposits in Utah “are next to environmentally sensitive areas,” so environmental issues include impacts from mining oil sands and debate over whether oil sands can be developed in a manner that does not release more Earth-warming carbon dioxide than production of sweet crude oil, says Smith.

Oil shale “has great economic potential for Utah,” he says. “Alberta is making a lot of money on oil sands.”

Smith says two companies – Temple Mountain Energy, Inc. and Earth Energy Resources, Inc. – now are exploring the feasibility of oil sands mining and processing in Utah. Officials of both companies will speak at the conference, as will representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The conference will feature an overview of the oil-sand resource in the western United States, and updates on extraction, production and processing technologies.

The conference will deal exclusively with oil sands. The university’s Utah Heavy Oil Center and the Colorado School of Mines will cosponsor an oil shale conference in October in Colorado.

The Utah Heavy Oil Center, which began operation early this year, receives about $2 million a year in U.S. Department of Energy funds earmarked by Congress, says Smith.

Its mission is to conduct unbiased, multidisciplinary research on technical, legal, business and environmental aspects of oil sands, oil shale and other unconventional heavy oil sources, and also to serve as an information repository and prepare reports “on the state of scientific, legal, environmental and economic development for oil sands, oil shale and heavy oil,” Smith says.

The full agenda and list of speakers for the Western U.S. Oil Sands Conference is at

For more information about the conference, see or call Kim Yocom at (801) 585-1233.