A basin of fuels has yet to make an energy splash

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Just south of Salt Lake valley, past sagebrush and antelope, lies the boom town of Delta, leaping like jack rabbits as a giant coal-fired power plant is constructed nearby.

And north of the valley across the Wyoming border lies the town of Evanston, which doubled in size last year and almost gags with trailer parks and pell-mell oil exploration.

To the east, the quiet town of Vernal rumbles with pilot plants spinning tar sands and oil shale into raw crude.

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And to the west, well, there's just the ancient Bonneville salt flats for now , and perhaps forever.

With energy exploration and potential on almost all sides, you would think Salt Lake City would be another Western energy capital. Yet Salt Lake City has not been hit with an energy boom as Denver or Houston has - a fact that gratifies some people and worries others. Abundance, it seems, is no guarantee of boom.

But the stirrings of resource wealth are here. Salt Lake City hopes to become the ''synfuels capital'' of the Rockies.''Them's that has, gits,'' the saying goes, and Utah has plenty to get.

Petroleum: In the Uinta Basin, just west of Salt Lake toward Colorado, lies the midpoint of the now-famous Overthrust Belt, a geologic formation running from Canada to Mexico. Some geologists say it may hold a pool of petroleum second in size only to Alaska's Prudhoe Bay.

Utah is hardly a top producer, with only 12 million tons in 1981. But the basin alone may contain a 30-year supply for Utah. The first major strike in the belt was made in Coalville, Utah, in the mid-1970s.

At an average cost of $1 million a well, most drilling is done by the major oil firms, notably Amoco. The ''overthrust'' itself requires drilling to pass through deep, double layers to reach oil pockets. Exploration has slowed down under the financial pressure of high interest rates. Last year, oil rigs were hard to come by. This year they are readily available. Firms have been forced to form limited partnerships to gain capital.

Dozens of oil-related firms, such as diamond-bit makers, are setting up shop. Many oil-exploration companies have formed in the last two years, financing themselves through the penny-stock market out of the Denver Stock Exchange, which is now in a slump due to the world oil price dip. Land speculation on oil rights is just as much a business as the actual exploration and drilling.

Coal: The state sits on 23.6 billion tons of good coal. It's low in sulfur and contains 20 to 25 percent more heat than average coal in Wyoming or Montana.

At present, the state produces about 12 million tons a year, with hopes of 57 million by 1990. Most deposits are owned by out-of-state companies such as Peabody Coal.

Although a severance tax on coal failed to pass the Legislature this year, most energy watchers expect Utah to follow other Western states someday in tapping the mineral riches for government coffers.

Coal mines also belch up plenty of natural gas, which a few companies are now trying to tap. But the coal gas would have a hard time competing on the market.

Utah Resources International of Salt Lake, a diversified energy company which owns 730,000 acres of land in the state, plans a $2 billion coal gasification and liquefaction plant in southwest Utah.

Salt Lake will be the closest major city to the Intermountain Power Plant near the small town of Delta, Utah. The newly-begun $8 billion project will require some 2,700 construction workers and produce the equivalent of three nuclear reactors, or 3,000 megawatts.

Tar sands and oil shale: Utah sits on the largest deposits of tar sands in the US - an estimated 26 billion barrels of oil is locked up in the gooey substance, with 5 billion barrels considered commercially recoverable.

Oil shale deposits may contain 50 billion barrels of recoverable oil. With about 10 projects now under way, state energy officials expect 188,500 barrels per day from oil shale and 338,500 BPD from tar sands by 1990. By 1996, the combined yield is projected to reach 840,600 BPD.

One hurdle is the federal authority over both oil and tar sands leases. The Utah congressional delegation has proposed a law for a combined hydrocarbon lease sales. Also, water supply and waste disposal remain a problem.

Geothermal: In the southern part of Utah, hot layers of the earth close to the surface have led to a small geothermal unit being installed by Utah Power and Light. More such tappings are expected.

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