Earth Energy received approval a year ago from the staff of the state's Oil, Gas and Mining Division to begin working its 62-acre tar-sands deposit on the Uintah County-Grand County line.
But opposition from environmental activists at the Moab-based Living Rivers and Peaceful Uprising forced that decision back into the hands of division Director John Baza, who ruled late Monday that his staff followed all the legal requirements in granting the mining permit.
Although technically the project now needs only local approval from Grand County to get under way, opponents still have the option of appealing Baza's decision to the division's board and beyond that to the Utah Supreme Court.
Juliana Williams of Peaceful Uprising said the environment group has yet to make a decision on whether it will appeal. She vowed that group will continue its opposition and is organizing in Grand County to make its objections known.
Environmentalists contend producing fuel from tar sands generates about three times the greenhouse gases of crude oil production. They also argue that tar-sands production consumes two to four barrels of water for each barrel of heavy oil produced.
"This project has no real value or contribution to society," John Weisheit, the conservation director at Living Rivers, said in a statement that was released following Baza's decision. "The total amount of oil produced by this mine over seven years of operation would cover just seven hours of American oil demand a tiny blip on the radar.
"However, it will take millennia to restore the watershed they are about to destroy."
Earth Energy contends, however, its process is environmentally friendly and uses a citrus-based solvent to recover the heavy oil, or bitumen, found in tar sands.
"We can extract the bitumen in a far more responsible manner than has been done to date anywhere in the world," Barclay Cuthbert, Earth Energy's vice president of operations, has explained. "We are eager to get this project under way."