Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A Day At The Tar Sands Conference

posted on 5/7/2013 by the Salt City Sinner


“Excuse me, but did you drive a car here today?” a man asked, his voice loaded with the combination of theatrically weary sarcasm and belligerence that I’ve come to think of as The Talk Radio Voice.

“Call ‘em out, Paul!” a man crowed on from the crowd.

“You’re just a hypocrite!” Paul continued. “A hypocrite!”

It was a little after one in the afternoon on a beautiful Tuesday, and the view from the sixth floor of Rice-Eccles Stadium’s press and VIP tower was exquisite – a sweeping vista of Salt Lake City that is in my experience unrivaled (in one of my many previous incarnations, I booked a gala event for a nonprofit I was working for in this very room for that very view). Against the light streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, framed against that view, were a band of  brave souls  who had come to interrupt Juan Palma, the Bureau of Land Management's Utah State Director, as he delivered an address titled “Energy development on federal lands in Utah -- is government a development constraint?” (good question!)

Paul – the angry “excuse me” guy – and the well-dressed protesters were on either side of Palma, who seemed embarrassed and a little bit flustered, and kept trying to wallpaper over the unpleasantness with a series of toweringly lame statements. “Ok, thirty more seconds,” said Juan. “That’s the thing about America; everybody has an opinion,” said Juan. “We’re calling the cops,” one of Juan’s less placatory lieutenants finally barked, and call the cops they did.

All of us – Juan, Paul, the protesters, even (indirectly) the cops – were there for the 2013 Unconventional Fuels  Conference , hosted by the University of Utah’s Institute for Clean and Secure Energy. Despite the “clean” that puts the C in ICSE, the name of their – and this conference’s – game is tar sands.

In a  previous post  I outlined what tar sands are and why you should care, but here’s the world’s shortest recap: oil/tar sands are loose rock formations that contain a very thick, sticky form of hydrocarbon called bitumen. Until recently, not many people cared very deeply about tar sands, because they are very difficult to extract. However, relatively recent technological innovations, as well as oil prices, have made these forms of oil profitable (in the short term) to extract. The problem with this is that tar sands produce more carbon emissions to extract than traditional sources of oil (about 12% more per barrel), suck up and pollute huge amounts of water throughout the extraction process, and in Utah will be hauled out of the earth via open pit mining (better known by its colorful nomme du guerre “strip mining”).

At the beginning of the conference the MC asked everyone – by a show of hands – to indicate what group they hailed from. There were a handful of people who claimed “environmental NGO,” a healthy dollop of academics, and a sizable contingent of government employees of one type or another, but by far the largest group represented in the conference audience was that from which Paul the impromptu counter-protester hails – the investors, contractors, consultants and other various creatures of energy companies.

The first half of the conference was wonky and dealt with carbon sequestration, computer modeling and risk prediction (one digression dealt with experimental natural gas combustion at one of the University’s laboratories and the outputs of pure oxygen versus common air – it was wonky, but I was paying attention!).

After a break, the Man from BLM took the mic and that was when something slightly too articulate to be called pandemonium broke out. As the protesters loudly read from scripts about their opposition to tar sands mining in Utah, one man quietly circulated and handed out fliers aimed at investors that sketched out arguments against tar sands mining in economic terms. When the cops arrived – and jeepers, they were quick to respond – the protesters were unceremoniously hauled out, one pretty roughly from the look and sound of it.

Why were the  protesters  – who were pretty varied in age, gender and ethnicity -- bothering these polite-if-glassy-eyed technocrats? Part of the explanation hangs on a conversation I overheard one disgruntled gentleman have with the woman at the reception table. “Just not polite,” he grunted. “Yes,” she agreed in a concerned tone. “There are good arguments to be made on either side, but there are plenty of places to have those arguments.” She was half right. There are very good arguments to be made about fossil fuels and the future of Utah. But good places?

True, there are toothless public-input sessions held by the BLM and other agencies, and even the occasional  town hall meeting  – but the underlying assumptions about energy’s place in the course of human events aren’t being questioned, and they should be. For all the deep number-crunching and modeling going on in the science portion of the conference, no mention at all was made of the alarms being sounded by other, equally smart number-crunchers and modelers regarding climate change or carbon emissions. Instead, a large public university – the University of Utah – has a large institute (28 faculty and over 60 students spanning eight departments -- I told you I was listening!) with “Clean” and “Energy” in the name, and that institute flogs tar sands.

Maybe the protesters are right about this conversation now requiring a civil disobedience portion. Maybe the time for being polite is over.

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