This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In my country, Estonia, the oil shale industry has permanently damaged many of our most important natural resources. Parts of northeastern Estonia have become unusable sacrifice zones that will never recover from the impacts of oil shale mining. As the country with the world's largest oil shale mining operations, we have lost much of our land, damaged our water and emitted more than our share of carbon into the atmosphere.
Yet, our state energy company, Eesti Energia, still tells us that oil shale is the "fuel of the future" and continues to propose future oil shale mining in Estonia. Eesti Energia is also attempting to "export innovation" by mining oil shale in other parts of the world. Through its main subsidiary, Enefit Oil, our national Estonian energy company has bought and leased over 30,000 acres of land in Utah and is now attempting to start strip mining for oil shale in the upper Colorado River Basin. Enefit will process the oil shale in a 50,000-barrel-per-day processing plant.
Here in Estonia, we fear for the future of both Utah and the Colorado River Basin if Enefit succeeds in opening its massive oil shale operation. The Green and White rivers, near the proposed oil shale strip mine, are beautiful rivers that supply water to the western United States. Many residents in Utah rely on the groundwater near the proposed oil shale mine site. And there are also farms, ranches and old family homes in this rural area.
In Estonia, before the oil shale mines started, the rural lifestyle and connection to nature were part of a way of life in northeastern Estonia. After the oil shale industry started, local fishermen went bankrupt because of the water pollution. In my childhood, the Purtse River, near my grandparents' home, was declared the dirtiest river in Estonia because it was so contaminated by chemicals from oil shale.
We have invested a lot of public European Union money in restoring polluted landscapes, but you still find areas like the "phenols marshland" a contaminated marsh of oil shale wastewater. The contaminated water comes from huge mountains of oil shale waste, called the "Estonian Alps," that are visible from space. Rain washes chemicals from these waste piles into the landscape and water. What will happen to Utah and to communities downstream if Enefit's waste harms the upper basin of the Colorado River watershed?
Groundwater has been affected, too. In the area where oil shale is mined in Estonia, there used to be three layers of groundwater suitable for human consumption. The oil shale industry has permanently destroyed two of these layers. People in the area cannot use that water for drinking anymore. Near the mines, the natural wetlands are suffering from low water tables. And in open mine areas, farmers will not be able to return to their fields for at least a century, if ever. Unlike Utah, we have vast water resources, but the damage from oil shale mining cannot be undone.
The oil shale industry also pollutes the air. While the research is still developing, the small town of Kiviõli, built around an oil shale factory, often experiences bad-smelling gases. Health statistics show that people in the oil shale area are at a higher risk of asthma and lung cancer than people in other parts of Estonia.
And oil shale is a fossil fuel that causes climate change. It is one of the least efficient fuels in the world when used for electricity or for transportation fuel. A lot of shale rock is dug out of the land in a process that resembles mountain-top removal, but very little energy is produced per ton.
Oil shale is not "the fuel of the future" and Estonia is not "exporting innovation." We believe that all countries including Estonia and the United States should be choosing clean energy that protects our environment, not oil shale. In Estonia, the oil shale industry has contaminated our water, strip mined our land and left us with a sacrifice zone that will never be the same.
Before the people of Utah and decision-makers allow oil shale mining to start in Utah and in the Colorado River Basin, we urge you to look at our Estonian experience. Generations from now, Estonians in the mining region will still be cleaning up the mines, remediating the phenol marshlands and unable to use much of the groundwater. It is not too late for Utah to learn from our history, and protect the Colorado River headwaters.
Silvia Lotman is the chief executive officer for the Estonian Fund for Nature, an Estonian non-governmental organization focused on the preservation of natural diversity in Estonia.