Thinking about Environmental Impact Statements

Published September 27, 2011 by tweetingdonal

What is an EIS?

“EIS” is the abbreviation for environmental impact statement, a document prepared to describe the effects of proposed activities on the environment. “Environment,” in this case, is defined as the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment. This means that the “environment” considered in an EIS includes land; water; air; structures; living organisms; environmental values at the site; and social, cultural, and economic factors.

An “impact” is a change or consequence that results from an activity. Impacts can be positive or negative, or both. An EIS describes impacts, as well as ways to “mitigate” impacts. To “mitigate” means to lessen or remove negative impacts.

Therefore, an EIS is a document that describes the impacts on the environment as a result of a proposed action. It also describes impacts of alternatives, as well as plans to mitigate the impacts.

For more information on the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS, visitAbout the EIS.

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What is a Programmatic EIS?

A Programmatic EIS evaluates the environmental impacts of broad agency actions, such as the development of programs or the setting of national policies. Designation of Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-administered lands for future oil shale and tar sands leasing will involve the amendment of 12 land use plans. Therefore, the proposed action will define and implement a program that sets the stage for site-specific actions to follow. The proposed action is also policy-setting, because it will establish oil shale or tar sands development as an appropriate use of the designated BLM-administered lands.

For more information on the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS, visitAbout the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS.

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Why is the BLM completing a Programmatic EIS?

The PEIS is being prepared to meet the requirements established by Congress in Section 369 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

For more information on this topic, visit Why the Programmatic EIS Is Needed.

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What is oil shale?

The term oil shale generally refers to any sedimentary rock that contains solid bituminous materials (called kerogen) that are released as petroleum-like liquids when the rock is heated in the chemical process of pyrolysis. Oil shale was formed millions of years ago by the deposition of silt and organic debris on lake beds and sea bottoms. Over long periods of time, heat and pressure transformed the materials into oil shale in a process similar to the process that forms oil; however, the heat and pressure were not as great. Oil shale generally contains enough oil that it will burn without any additional processing, and it is known as “the rock that burns.”

Oil shale can be mined and processed to produce oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells; however, extracting oil from oil shale is more complex than conventional oil recovery and currently is more expensive. The kerogen in oil shale is a solid and cannot be pumped directly out of the ground. The oil shale can be mined and then heated to a high temperature (a process called retorting); the resultant liquid can then be separated and collected. An alternative but currently experimental process referred to as in situ retorting involves heating the oil shale while it is still underground and then pumping the resulting liquid to the surface.

For more information on oil shale, visit About Oil ShalePhotos of oil shale and oil shale processing facilities are also available, as are maps of oil shale resources in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

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What are tar sands?

Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a heavy black viscous oil). Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the bitumen, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques. In-situ techniques may also be used.

Tar sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from tar sands is more complex than conventional oil recovery. Oil sands recovery processes include extraction andseparation systems to separate the bitumen from the clay, sand, and water that make up the tar sands. Bitumen also requires additional upgrading before it can be refined. Because it is so viscous (thick), it also requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines.

For more information on tar sands, visit About Tar SandsPhotos of tar sand and tar sand processing facilities are also available, as are maps of tar sand resources in Utah.

 

What impacts and issues are addressed in the PEIS?

The PEIS identifies and analyzes the direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental, cultural, and socio-economic impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives, and addresses the following issues:

The major issues that will be addressed in the PEIS include:

  • Management of the oil shale and tar sands resources;
  • Surface and groundwater protection;
  • Air quality protection;
  • Wildlife and wildlife habitat quality and fragmentation;
  • Protection of wilderness, riparian, and scenic values;
  • Cultural resource protection;
  • Threatened and endangered species and habitat protection;
  • Multiple mineral development; and
  • Socioeconomic impacts on local economies.

For more information, visit What’s in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS.

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What oil shale technologies are analyzed in the PEIS?

The PEIS examines surface mining with surface retort, underground mining with surface retort, and in situ retorting technologies.

What tar sands technologies are analyzed in the PEIS?

The PEIS discusses surface mining with surface retort, surface mining with solvent extraction, in situ steam injection, and in situ combustion technologies.

For more information, visit What’s in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS.

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What is the scope of the analysis in the Oil Shale and Tar Sands PEIS?

The scope of the PEIS includes a qualitative assessment of the potential positive and negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of making lands available for future leasing of oil shale and tar sands resources on BLM-administered federal lands located in northwestern Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming, and a discussion of relevant mitigation measures to address these potential impacts. The Draft PEIS proposes land use plan amendments to designate lands available for oil shale and tar sands leasing and future development activities.

For more information, visit What’s In the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic EIS.

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About Tar Sands

Basic information on tar sands, tar sands resources, and recovery of oil from tar sands.

What Are Tar Sands?

Tar Sandsclick to view larger image

Tar Sands

Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil. Tar sands can be mined and processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. The bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead tar sand deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open pit techniques, or the oil is extracted by underground heating with additional upgrading.

See the Photos page for additional photos of tar sand and tar sand mining.

Tar Sands Open Pit Mining, Albertaclick to view larger image

Tar Sands Open Pit Mining, Alberta, Canada

Tar sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to oil pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from tar sands is more complex than conventional oil recovery. Oil sands recovery processes include extraction and separationsystems to separate the bitumen from the clay, sand, and water that make up the tar sands. Bitumen also requires additional upgrading before it can be refined. Because it is so viscous (thick), it also requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines.

 

Tar Sands Resources

Tar Sands Resources, Utahclick to view larger image

Primary Tar Sands Resources in Utah

Much of the world’s oil (more than 2 trillion barrels) is in the form of tar sands, although it is not all recoverable. While tar sands are found in many places worldwide, the largest deposits in the world are found in Canada (Alberta) and Venezuela, and much of the rest is found in various countries in the Middle East. In the United States, tar sands resources are primarily concentrated in Eastern Utah, mostly on public lands. The in-place tar sands oil resources in Utah are estimated at 12 to 19 billion barrels.

See the Maps page for additional maps of tar sands resources in Utah.

Utah Tar Sands Estimated In-Place Resources

Deposit Known (MMB) Additional Projected (MMB)
Sunnyside 4,400 1,700
Tar Sand Triangle 2,500 420
PR Spring 2,140 2,230
Asphalt Ridge 830 310
Circle Cliffs 590 1,140
Other 1,410 1,530
Total: 11,870 7,330

The Tar Sands Industry

Currently, oil is not produced from tar sands on a significant commercial level in the United States; in fact, only Canada has a large-scale commercial tar sands industry, though a small amount of oil from tar sands is produced commercially in Venezuela. The Canadian tar sands industry is centered in Alberta, and more than one million barrels of synthetic oil are produced from these resources per day. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada’s oil production, and output is expanding rapidly. Approximately 20% of U.S. crude oil and products come from Canada, and a substantial portion of this amount comes from tar sands. The tar sands are extracted both by mining and in situ recovery methods (see below). Canadian tar sands are different than U.S. tar sands in that Canadian tar sands are water wetted, while U.S tar sands are hydrocarbon wetted. As a result of this difference, extraction techniques for the tar sands in Utah will be different than for those in Alberta.

Recently, prices for crude oil have again risen to levels that may make tar-sands-based oil production in the United States commercially attractive, and both government and industry are interested in pursuing the development of tar sands oil resources as an alternative to conventional oil.

Tar Sands Extraction and Processing

Tar Sands Open Pit Miningclick to view larger image

Tar Sands Open Pit Mining, Alberta, Canada

Tar sands deposits near the surface can be recovered by open pit mining techniques. New methods introduced in the 1990s considerably improved the efficiency of tar sands mining, thus reducing the cost. These systems use large hydraulic and electrically powered shovels to dig up tar sands and load them into enormous trucks that can carry up to 320 tons of tar sands per load.

 
  Extraction Separation Cellclick to view larger image

Tar Sands Extraction Separation Cell, Alberta, Canada
 
   

After mining, the tar sands are transported to anextraction plant, where a hot water process separates the bitumen from sand, water, and minerals. The separation takes place in separation cells. Hot water is added to the sand, and the resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated. The combination of hot water and agitation releases bitumen from the oil sand, and causes tiny air bubbles to attach to the bitumen droplets, that float to the top of the separation vessel, where the bitumen can be skimmed off. Further processing removes residual water and solids. The bitumen is then transported and eventually upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

See the Photos page for additional photos of tar sand processing facilities.

About two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel of oil. Roughly 75% of the bitumen can be recovered from sand. After oil extraction, the spent sand and other materials are then returned to the mine, which is eventually reclaimed.

In-situ production methods are used on bitumen deposits buried too deep for mining to be economically recovered. These techniques include steam injection, solvent injection, and firefloods, in which oxygen is injected and part of the resource burned to provide heat. So far steam injection has been the favoured method. Some of these extraction methods require large amounts of both water and energy (for heating and pumping).

Both mining and processing of tar sands involve a variety of environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality. The development of a commercial tar sands industry in the U.S. would also have significant social and economic impacts on local communities. Of special concern in the relatively arid western United States is the large amount of water required for tar sands processing; currently, tar sands extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, though some of the water can be recycled.

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