Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Amy Hadden Marsh):
There comes a phase in almost any large-scale, controversial project on public or private land when the questions arise and the lawsuits begin. The proposed Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) is no different.
Everything about the venture is large-scale, from its nationwide scope to potential global impacts. Although the UBR, at 88 miles, is considered a “short line,” it would create a new link in the oil supply chain connecting the vast, fracked-oil fields in northeast Utah’s Uinta Basin to the national rail network, passing through Glenwood Canyon on its way to the refineries on the Gulf Coast. The UBR, approved by the Federal Surface Transportation Board (FSTB) in late 2021, would provide enough transportation capacity to increase oil production in the Uinta Basin from between 80,000 and 90,000 barrels per day (B/D) currently to 350,000 B/D — essentially quadrupling output.
The increase in CO2 from expanding Uinta Basin production would come at a time when scientists around the world are sounding an alarm. In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025, drop by half by 2030 with net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to avoid catastrophic and possibly irreversible climate changes.
Combined CO2 emissions from the estimated fracked-oil operations in the Uinta Basin as result of the UBR and end-product combustion range from about 20 to 55 megatons per year, which, at the high end, is equal to about 1% of the U.S. or 17.5% of the United Kingdom CO2 output in 2020.
Salt Lake City refineries at capacity
The type of oil found in the Uinta Basin is tricky to transport and difficult to refine. Called “waxy crude” because of its high paraffin content, it solidifies at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality states that it must be “heated in the field and transported in insulated trucks.”
As explained by Adam Sayres, president of Axia Energy II, which operates in the Uinta Basin, Uinta crude is like Chapstick. He gave a detailed presentation to the Board of Trustees of Utah’s School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) in May 2018, stating that the crude is liquid underground at about 225 degrees, but once it hits the surface, it has to be kept in heated tanks at 180 degrees. Then, it’s loaded onto insulated trucks that head for Salt Lake City refineries, about 150 miles away.
According to Matt Sands, host of the Mineral Rights Podcast, in 2019, those refineries had a total production capacity for 189,000 B/D but only about 88,000 B/D for Uinta Basin waxy crude. Salt Lake City was declared a nonattainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency for air-quality standards twice in one decade — in 2009 for fine particulate matter and in 2015 for ozone — which proved problematic for those wanting to increase Uinta Basin waxy-crude production. “Production has had to mirror the refining capacity,” Sayres told the SITLA board.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, told Aspen Journalism that ozone levels have not improved and emissions from all refining operations are capped due to air-quality concerns. “Without getting permit changes or offsetting emissions, the refineries cannot increase production,” he said.
Wendy Park, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group opposed to the UBR, said Uinta Basin oil producers are locked into the Salt Lake City refinery market, which gives the refineries a distinct advantage. “The Salt Lake City refineries can ask for a discount because there isn’t much competition for this waxy crude oil, [since companies] can’t get it to other customers,” she said. “The increase in markets for Uinta Basin crude would allow oil producers to charge higher prices, which would spur increased drilling.”
The only way to increase production in the Uinta Basin is to refine the waxy crude somewhere else. Proponents of the UBR say the best way to do that is to link the Uinta Basin by rail to the national rail network, near Price, Utah, and take that crude to Gulf Coast refineries that can handle it.
Oil trains would go through Colorado
The UBR promises to add from three to 10 oil trains daily to the national railway running through Colorado. The trains would share the tracks with Amtrak and freight haulers, winding through Glenwood Canyon and up through the Moffat Tunnel before descending to Denver and then east and south. The waxy crude would be shipped in heated unit cars — approximately 110 cars per train with the capacity to carry about 642 barrels in each car.
Communities along the Colorado route, including the city of Glenwood Springs, have written to U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John HIckenlooper against the UBR, citing concerns about air quality, wildlife, water and public safety. Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes told Aspen Journalism that an accident or spill in Glenwood Canyon would be disastrous all the way to the Sea of Cortez. “To say it’s a far-fetched possibility, I think, is to ignore reality,” he said. “If that waxy crude that’s heated in order to stay viscous spills into our watershed and into the Colorado River, it would be a massive cleanup where they would have to remove tons of soil and debris.”
Eagle County officials, who are party to a lawsuit challenging the FSTB’s December approval of the UBR, have also voiced concerns that the long-dormant Tennessee Pass rail line would be revived as an alternate route for the oil trains should the national rail network through Colorado — particularly the Moffat Tunnel — become crowded.
Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific Corp (RGPC), which plans to build and operate the UBR, also owns Colorado, Midland & Pacific Railway (CMP), which, in late 2020, attempted to lease a portion of the Tennessee Pass line from UP for possible commuter/passenger service and freight options, and applied for fast-track approval from the FSTB. RGPC made a point of stating that it “has no plan to operate oil trains over Tennessee Pass.” RGPC even went so far as to amend its plan a week before the FSTB made its decision, requesting restriction from hauling crude oil, coal and hazardous materials in the proposed lease.
But Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr is not convinced. “There is no way they can commit to that,” he told Aspen Journalism. “They are not allowed to officially make a promise that [they] will not do some sort of activity on a line that has a general practice of moving freight.”
The FSTB denied the application — and, by extension, RGPC’s proposed amendment — on March 25, 2021, for a variety of reasons, including public opposition and RGPC’s apparent rush to get it done. But the decision left the door open for CMP to reapply with a more comprehensive impact review and a full application process. “So, the proposal could come back,” said Park.