Utah climate activists infiltrate a truly unconventional energy summit

(Peaceful Uprising / David Andreason)

Members of Utah Tar Sands Resistance pose with Gov. Herbert’s Polluter of the Year award — a statue of a small child holding a bowl full of tar sands (right), and a large medallion covered in tar sands. (Peaceful Uprising / David Andreason)

Earlier this month, during the opening session of the 2013 Utah Energy Development Summit, two activists with Utah Tar Sands Resistance took to the stage in order to present Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — the host of the summit — with a very special award: Polluter of the Year. After commandeering the microphone, the presenters called upon “Dirty Herby” to accept the rather dubious distinction. After all, they argued, Herbert is working to grab more than 30 million acres of federal public lands in order to open them up to private fossil fuel development, which includes the first tar sands strip mine in the U.S.

Despite his dedication to the energy industry, Herbert was apparently late to his own summit and thus unable to physically accept the award. Instead, he tweeted: “Utah is committed to protecting our beautiful environment, so we want only RESPONSIBLE energy development.”

Such good intentions, however, were not enough for the activists. Raphael Cordray of Utah Tar Sands Resistance maintains that nothing about tar sands mining is responsible. “Everything from the mining process to the transportation of the bitumen to the refining will only add to the environmental issues we already face here in Utah,” she said. And, as a recent study has shown, tar sands are increasing the levels of cancer-causing compounds in the lakes of Alberta. “This isn’t something we want to happen in Utah,” Cordray added.

As for the award, Tim Tracy, one of the presenters, said, “Gov. Herbert has never let long-term concerns cloud his commitment to short-term profits for big industry. He understands that while we can drink dirty water and breathe polluted air, once our economy is gone it’s gone for good. And though renewable technologies would clearly bring in more jobs, he shows a heartwarming loyalty to his compatriots in the dirtiest extractive industries by creating a business-friendly environment for activities like tar sands mining and fracking.”

While members of the renewable energy sector were present at the two-day summit, it was the issue of tar sands mining that really took center stage, both inside and outside the Salt Palace Convention Center. Panel discussions such as “The Real Impacts of Oil Shale & Oil Sands Development in Utah” offered a cursory and industry-centered view on the subject. But members of the Moab-based activist group Before It Starts (BIS) painted a much more vivid picture of the impact tar sands mining will have on the groundwater of eastern Utah. They distributed bottles of “citrus enhanced” water that they claimed was manufactured by U.S. Oil Sands — the Canadian corporation hoping to open the first tar sands mining operation in the United States.

Displays of these bottles were left on tables with placards reading: “The water you are enjoying today contains a hint of the biodegradable citrus-based d-Limonene [a chemical agent U.S. Oil Sands proposes to use in its mining operation], as well as proprietary solvents we use to separate oil from sand in our revolutionary Ophus process. Isn’t modern mining refreshing?”

Despite the provocation, summit attendees appeared to remain as oblivious to the bottled water as they were to the issue of water pollution. No one even asked the activists to leave. As BIS co-director Ashley Anderson remarked, “I just hope no one gets too sick. We didn’t really think anyone would drink it with an ingredients list like that. We certainly didn’t try it ourselves.”

Later that afternoon, as Gov. Herbert was hosting a luncheon and handing out industry awards, nearly 200 people gathered outside the Salt Palace for a “Clean Energy Now” rally. Representatives from HEAL Utah, Sierra Club, Moapa Band of Paiutes and others were in attendance to speak about the need to move away from harmful and deadly fossil fuels that not only contribute to global warming, but also the local air quality in Salt Lake City, which is among the worst in the nation.

Since Salt Lake City was experiencing one of its infamous "red air" quality days many protesters wore breathing masks.(Peaceful Uprising / David Andreason)

Since Salt Lake City was experiencing one of its infamous “red air” quality days many protesters wore breathing masks.(Peaceful Uprising / David Andreason)

As the rally neared its end, the discussion shifted to resistance. Joan Gregory, with the group Peaceful Uprising, read a statement expressing solidarity with Canada’s indigenous Idle No More movement, saying, “Our paths are intertwined; our loyalties lie with our collective future and our shared commitment to climate justice.” She then called on the crowd to “take bold and courageous action, create beautiful trouble.”

Although an attempt to storm the Salt Palace singing “This Land Is Your Land” was quickly turned away by security, Gregory’s point seemed to be understood by the crowd. As Cordray noted, “Voting, writing letters and politely asking for change is not working. It is time to step it up. Nationwide, upstanding humans are taking action. We all must put our bodies on the line if we want things to change.”

On the second day of the summit, Anderson was able to speak during one of the official “Unconventional Fuel” breakout sessions. He began by addressing the complaints many at the summit had made of the protesters.

“I think there’s a misconception that those who are opposed to the development of unconventional fuels are a wilfully blind minority,” Anderson said. “The truth is, we are in the vast majority of critically thinking laypeople and choose to follow the advice of those who are experts in climate and weather and whose careers depend upon performing unbiased analysis and reaching defensible conclusions.”

Anderson then went on to address the industry members directly, saying: “No matter how green your new approaches to these resources might be relative to techniques used in the past, by participating in the development of unconventional fossil fuels, you are taking a leading role in the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. You must destroy land, water and air to create profit for your shareholders.”

That same day, perhaps all-too-fittingly, the Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining released its decision to allow U.S. Oil Sands to move forward with the first stage of its mining in the Uintah Basin. Living Rivers, the group that has kept the project legally stalled for over two years, is planning to appeal; direct-action groups, meanwhile, are prepared to take the battle out of the courts. “This isn’t over,” Anderson said.

Meanwhile, Utah Tar Sands Resistance would like Gov. Herbert to know that his Polluter of the Year award is in safe keeping and that he can claim it any time. “At least for the next few weeks,” said Tracy. “After that, it will automatically default to our runner-up: Cameron Todd, the CEO of U.S. Oil Sands.”

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