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ESTONIA — In the faraway nation of Estonia, they're plotting big things for Utah's future. An Estonian government-owned company wants to build a massive oil-shale operation in Uintah County. It promises thousands of jobs, and with it lots of controversy.
Representatives from Enefit said the Estonian company's track record shows it's learned how to conduct business without damaging the environment. But environmental activists have vowed to stop Enefit from moving into Utah no matter what it takes.
Many Estonians acknowledge that their oil-shale industry has had a troubled past, but they insist their tiny Baltic nation has made significant improvements to the way it mines and processes the oil shale. A few decades ago, the industry was an environmental disaster, according to many Estonians.
"Definitely, in northeastern Estonia, we have higher rates of getting sick on the respiratory disease," said Valdur Lahtvee of the Stockholm Environment Institute.
There are still vast piles of waste in Estonia, and dozens of square miles remain torn up by strip-mining. There used to be severe air pollution and water quality problems. These environmental issues are the lasting legacy of a devastating stretch of history for Estonia, which was repeatedly abused by its much larger neighbors. The Soviets invaded, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again, with each set of tyrants outdoing the last in brutality. Once the Soviets consolidated power and ruled Estonia like a colony, they built giant oil-shale power plants that were not kind to the environment.
"And, of course, another thing is the typical Soviet attitude, which was that 'We are the kings of nature so we take what we like.' It's not like what natures gives us," said Tonis Merest, Enefit Environmental Developmental Manager.
Strip mining has played a significant role in Estonia's political past.
According to a documentary called "The Singing Revolution," a daring demonstration against strip mining proved to be an important early protest against Soviet domination in the 1980s. Today, Estonian practices are much different, Enefit representatives said.
"I think there's been a significant amount of improvement in terms of air quality, in terms of water usage, overall efficiency and environmental performance of the industry," said Rikki Hrenko, CEO of Enefit American Oil.
Despite Enefit representatives' claims of improved practices, environmentalists in Utah fear catastrophe could occur if the government-owned company brings its technology to Uintah County.
"Water is too precious. We have alternatives. We don't need to do this." — Raphael Cordray, Peaceful Uprising/Utah Tar Sands Resistance
"These will become wastelands," said Raphael Cordray of Peaceful Uprising/Utah Tar Sands Resistance, speaking about areas of Uintah County. "They won't be recoverable."
Environmentalists assert an oil-shale operation will also affect the Wasatch Front because refineries will expand to handle the crude oil.
When it comes to pollution-causing air emissions, Igor Kant, CEO of Estonia's Oil & Gas Plant, said: "We don't have any problems."
Despite claims of a cleaned-up Estonian mining industry, Utah environmentalists are deeply skeptical about the promises. They also worry the operation will consume too much water in the nation's second driest state.
"Water is too precious," Cordray said. "We have alternatives. We don't need to do this."
But Enefit says a new process just going on-line in Estonia greatly reduces water-use concerns.
"We don't need water," Kant said. "It's one of the biggest advantages of this technology."
Utah officials who toured Estonian facilities came away impressed with the latest oil-shale technology.
"The biggest use of water will be the dust control that will be needed in the area," said Kevin Van Tassell, State Senator District 26.
Another issue of oil-shale mining, however, is waste and torn-up landscapes. "They leave behind destructiveness," Cordray said.
According to Enefit, the state-owned company has learned to reduce and recycle waste. It plans to re-bury most of the waste where the shale is mined and re-landscape with vegetation, just as it's doing now in Estonia.
"We have converted our industry here to [be] much, much safer, compared to the decades ago," — Valdur Lahtvee, Stockholm Environment Institute
According to Lahtvee, the Estonian environmentalist, it's up to Utah regulators to do their job.
"We have converted our industry here to [be] much, much safer, compared to the decades ago," Lahtvee said.
When asked if Enefit's project would ruin Utah's environment, Lahtvee said: "It depends very much if there are sufficient conditions for operation given."
Cordray isn't convinced. "Our state already has a history of doing a poor job of regulating and protecting our environment. And that's why these projects are being targeted for Utah."
Merest is one of many Enefit officials who see the Utah venture as an opportunity to bring national pride to Estonia. "If there is only roughly 1.3, 1.4 million people [in Estonia]," Merest said, "and we can provide to the whole world something which is very unique for us, it is national pride."
Enefit hopes to be fully approved and permitted 2 to 3 years from now, and up and running by around 2020. The company won't say exactly how much it'll invest in Utah but CEO Hrenko says the dollar amount is in the billions.