Later this summer, a company plans to open a surface mine in southern Kentucky. But the operation won’t be mining for coal. Instead, they’re seeking to extract a new natural resource in the commonwealth: tar sands.
Tar sands mining in Canada has sparked protests, both there and in the United States. Environmental groups have pointed to water and air pollution from the operation, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions from mining and processing the heavy tar sands. There's an ongoing debate about whether the United States should allow the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline to be built, which would transport the oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
Now, a similar resource will be mined in southern Kentucky, but the project’s managers say new technology will avoid the environmental problems that have occurred in Canada. There’s sandstone with heavy oil in its pores in Logan County, Kentucky, and a company called Arrakis Oil Recovery plans to start extracting the oil later this summer.
Jeffrey Wilson with Arrakis says the technology used in this project is different than what’s being used in Canada…and is actually a system that was developed especially to help clean up the Canadian tar sands operations.
“We’re not using any heat in the process, so we’re not creating any volatile emissions,” he said. “The crushing of the sand and the processing of the sand is all done with a water-based chemical. It is a non-toxic, biodegradable chemical.”
Wilson says the company has conducted tests to ensure nothing leaches into the groundwater. The tar sands will be surface mined—the same process that’s used to extract coal—and then the sandstone is ground up. Once it’s processed, the byproducts are oil, water and clean sand. The water has chemicals in it, and will be recycled, but the clean sand will be put back into the mining pit.
Tim Joice with the Kentucky Waterways Alliance says he’s not entirely convinced the sand will be clean, and he worries excess nutrients will end up in the sand.
“Those elements, when put into the environment can cause water quality impacts if they are in larger numbers. And so if the sand still contains some of those elements, then that could be a problem.”
And then there are also the environmental issues caused by surface mining.
“There’s nothing I can do about the fact that we have to surface mine,” Wilson said. “I mean, that’s the nature of the resource. So other than that impact, the traditional impacts that people are concerned about with tar sand mining and tar sand processing that they see in Canada just aren’t going to be an issue here.”
Wilson says the company will reclaim the mine site as required by state law, but the company is still waiting for a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is required for surface mines. Once the operation is up and running, he expects to produce about a thousand barrels of oil a day for the next six or seven years.