Eastern Utah may see tar sand production begin later this year. A private company, the Alberta-based U.S. Oil Sands, has invested $6 million since 2005 to test the oil sands at its 6,000-acre lease in eastern Utah and develop pilot projects on state land. They were granted preliminary permits to begin production in 2009, and have been raising capital and developing plans to begin production. “We would expect to hopefully to have this up and running by about September of next year,” said Cameron Todd, CEO of U.S. Oil Sands.

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that the sands could hold between 12 to 19 billion barrels of oil, although not all of that will be recoverable. Nationwide, the U.S. Geological Survey has said tar sands hold around 36 billion barrels of oil – held in geographically dispersed states like Alabama, Alaska, California, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming.

Environmental groups object to the plans to develop Utah’s tar sands, saying that extracting the oil will fundamentally transform the untouched natural landscape. U.S. Oil Sands has stated that they will undertake land reclamation efforts, but environmental groups are unconvinced, arguing that previous reclamation efforts in the region have been unsuccessful. Activist groups protested the development of the sands at the School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration in Salt Lake City on Monday, and are planning on drawing attention to the Utah tar sands, which have received little attention in the press.

U.S. Oil Sands says they’ll be able to avoid producing the toxic sludge that fills waste ponds associated with most tar sands developments, and ultimately produce bitumen for $50 to $60 per barrel. However, Rob Deluc, staff attorney with Western Resource Advocates, warns of potential water contamination. “The troubling part of both the oil shale and tar sands proposals is that this is 100 percent land disturbance,” he said, calling for a conservative approach to tar sands development.

Should Utah move ahead with this oil sands development? In what regards are differences between oil sands development and traditional oil & gas extraction relevant to questions of public opinion and policy? Should public policy have a greater role in setting the terms of oil sands development?