Tar sands development often conjures images of a bleak northeast Alberta landscape, scraped and scalped of its vegetation after being converted to sprawling strip mines from which much of Canadian oil imports to the United States originate.

But if a proposal by Alberta-based Earth Energy Resources survives environmentalists’ appeal, eastern Utah’s canyon country could become a backdrop for the only tar sands mine in the United States.

In 2009, Utah mining regulators approved EER’s proposed PR Spring Mine on state institutional trust land in Uintah and Grand counties northwest of Grand Junction, Colo. If the mine is successful, it could prove the viability of a Utah tar sands industry, possibly bringing a new level of energy development to the Colorado Plateau.

Tar sand, also called oil sand, bituminous sand or asphaltic sandstone, is oil-laden sedimentary rock most commonly extracted in Canada. Utah’s tar sands, however, are generally half as rich as Canada’s and require more processing to extract the oil.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that Utah tar sands harbor between 12 billion and 19 billion barrels of oil, with at least 2 billion barrels to be found at PR Spring.

The push to develop tar sands in Utah is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Determined to find a way for American oil shale and tar sands to become sources of domestic energy production, Congress required the U.S. Department of Energy to start up a tar sands and oil shale leasing program as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

In 2008, the DOE completed an environmental study of its tar sands and oil shale program, outlining 11 potential tar sands development areas in Utah, the only state in which tar sands are thought to be economically recoverable.