KEMMERER—TerraPower, backed by billionaire Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, plans to build the pilot “Natrium” liquid-sodium-cooled nuclear energy plant here, hoping its success will spur the deployment of Natrium and other small nuclear reactors throughout the nation and around the world.
The next-generation technology presents myriad considerations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has authority over the safety, security and environmental implications of such facilities. It would also be the first industrial nuclear facility in Wyoming, and locals have many questions:
Does the NRC take seismic activity into account? When might the spent radioactive fuel waste be shipped off to a permanent storage facility? Will there be regular NRC inspections, and how often?
Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), however, shares another concern that is top-of-mind for locals who are eager for the economic boost that developers promise: Can the NRC speed up the approval process “if you get the right people in place?
“I’m running out of time planning and creating legislation to make sure this all comes together,” he said.
Dockstader was among more than 100 local residents who attended the NRC’s two information sessions here Tuesday. The agency sent a dozen staff members to this isolated southwestern Wyoming town of 2,400 to field questions about what many anticipate will be an expedited review process.
TerraPower and its contractors have already drilled more than 100 boreholes here to help “investigate” the suitability of the location, according to the company, and it plans to begin construction of the sodium testing facility and other non-nuclear portions of the 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear reactor energy plant in 2024.
The nuclear plant will be “co-located” next to PacifiCorp’s Naughton power plant just outside of Kemmerer. One coal-burning unit at the plant was converted to natural gas, and the two remaining units there will be converted to natural gas in 2026.
Before the company can begin assembling the nuclear components, however, it must complete a licensing application that can pass the NRC’s review process, which includes several opportunities for the public to weigh in on the proposal. The NRC expects to receive TerraPower’s application, and initiate the official review process in March.
“Now is an opportune time to conduct this initial outreach and to explain the analysis process of reviewing applications for construction and operation,” NRC’s Chief of Advanced Reactor Licensing William Jessup said.
Although the NRC is developing a new review process specific to “advanced” reactors such as Natrium, which uses molten sodium as a coolant instead of water, TerraPower has tentatively agreed to seek approval via the long existing “Part 50” review, according to Jessup. It includes multiple review tracks, each with a safety and environmental component: one to consider a construction permit, and another to consider an operating license. The process requires the NRC to produce an environmental impact statement — all of which include public input and multiple opportunities for the normal administrative and legal challenges that come with large federal permitting activities, Jessup explained.
Typically, the arduous NRC review can take up to seven years or more to complete — with no guarantee of final approval. Last year, the NRC denied Oklo Power, LLC’s application to build a “fast reactor” in Idaho for allegedly failing to provide sufficient information on the facility’s design.
TerraPower — which is embarking on its first NRC licensing attempt — hopes to win approval much sooner, however, thanks in part to the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. The law — championed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) — set a maximum review timeline of 36 months. Additionally, TerraPower expects to help the NRC trim that timeline even further by filing information ahead of schedule.
It all depends on TerraPower submitting thorough information that doesn’t require many requests to fill in unanswered questions, according to the NRC.
“If we have all of these discussions and address all of these topics before the application even comes in, then you would expect that it may make the review go faster,” Jessup told WyoFile.
Many locals are eager for the potential economic boon the $4 billion project might bring to this region, which has long relied on the diminishing coal industry to power its economy. But many of the same people, and others, are concerned about the high-stake risks that come with a nuclear facility.
Does the NRC take seismic activity into account?
Yes, NRC officials said, adding that they are aware that there is seismic activity in the Rocky Mountain Region.
Several residents, including Rep. Scott Heiner (R-Green River), asked when the radioactive spent fuel might be transported to a permanent storage facility.
“Is there a permanent solution for waste that is being worked on at this time?” Heiner asked.
No, there is no permanent nuclear fuel waste repository in the U.S. at the moment, NRC officials said. Though NRC staff in attendance indicated they “anticipate” one will be built, others have long indicated that there’s no clear path to building a permanent repository, which has been discussed for decades.
For now, that means spent nuclear fuel will be “temporarily” stored on site — for how long, nobody knows.
The NRC also fielded questions about how nuclear fuel will be transported to the facility and how safety of those radioactive materials will be ensured. The NRC, along with several other federal agencies, closely manage the transport of such materials in cooperation with state agencies, according to staff members. A specific plan, however, will be worked out in the NRC’s review, they said.
NRC representatives also assured locals that they will maintain partnerships with local emergency managers and state environmental authorities.
Many questions about TerraPower’s Natrium design, however — such as water consumption and where the company will find enough construction and permanent workers — are up to the company to answer. However, most of those details — with the exception of information that the NRC agrees to deem proprietary — will be included in the application and public review, according to NRC staff.
“That’s the reason we’re here tonight,” Jessup said. “We’re here to get the message out early about our process and how to interact.”
Study finds that existing technology can get Colorado to near-zero electricity without need for breakthroughs in geothermal, nuclear or other realms. It will require a bit of natural gas.
Colorado can decarbonize its electricity very deeply by 2040 without busting the bank. But there’s a catch.
To hit this 98.5% decarbonization level will require accepting natural gas as 1% of the mix along with a small percentage of carbon-based electricity imported into Colorado. And getting there will not require still-costly emerging technologies.
That’s the take-away from a modeling study commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.
How about 100% emissions-free electricity? That can be achieved, and in several different ways — all of them at a higher price, according to the modeling conducted by Ascend Analytics, a Boulder-based company.
The company modeled two other scenarios deploying deep levels of geothermal, hydrogen, and advanced nuclear reactors as well as other emerging technologies. Still another scenario examined the cost of using simply wind, solar, and existing battery technology. And one scenario emphasized local generation.
These five other scenarios came in at prices of $47.1 billion to $56.2 billion in net-present value — all substantially higher than the $37.5 billion of the less-than-perfect scenario using some natural gas.
Burning natural gas on an as-needed basis to ensure reliability will produce 565,000 metric tons of emissions in 2040. That compares with 40 million tons in 2005, according to the modeling study. This scenario also envisions a higher share of electricity , about 17%, being imported into Colorado.
All the scenarios in the modeling assume substantial amounts of improved energy efficiency, in effect partially eliminating the need for new generation. All models also assume that Colorado utilities will, as required by a state law, be participating in some sort of regional market for electricity by 2030.
Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, called the study results “huge.”
“The biggest takeaway of the study is understanding that we can get very deep emissions reductions, nearly zero emissions by 2040 while minimizing costs to utility customers. That is not something that we understood going into this study,” he said in an interview.
“As we look at developing the policy framework for 2040, it will be very much informed by that understanding,” he added.
The modeling study will likely deliver the justification for a bill in the legislative session beginning in January that would propose a new emissions-reduction target for Colorado’s electrical utilities. Laws adopted in 2019 and in subsequent years tasked those utilities with reducing emissions 80% by 2030. Most and perhaps all seem to be on track to get there with relative ease.
Some moving higher more quickly
Some utilities expect to get far higher—and soon. Notable is Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative based in Glenwood Springs. It expects to achieve 92% emissions-free electricity by early in 2024 and has a goal of 100% by 2030.
Bryan Hannegan, chief executive of Holy Cross, has long said that the path to 90% was reasonably clear. The hard part, with answers still unknown, he has said, will be that final 10%. And unlike the path to 90%, that final leg will likely be more expensive.
The modeling has any number of assumptions. Some likely are further out on the limb than others.
All the scenarios assume a 40% increase in electrical demand across Colorado during the next 17 years. Population growth will drive some of this new demand. Increased demand will also result from electricity replacing fossil fuels in both transportation and building and water heating.
To satisfy this increased demand will require new generation. Just how much new generation will depend upon the type. Wind and solar exclusively from generators within Colorado coupled with battery storage would require 74,492 megawatts of installed capacity. Having natural gas available will require far less, 44,474 megawatts.
On a more micro level and with a concrete challenge, Platte River Power Authority — the supplier to Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont — is putting together its resource plan looking out to 2030. Directors in 2018 identified a goal of 100% renewables by 2030 but also attached a handful of conditions to that goal. Five years later, Platte River’s planners don’t see a way to 100% by 2030, at least not without risking reliability or absorbing considerable costs. One scenario calls for 85% renewables. The plan, however, is not scheduled to be completed until June.
Transmission, seen by many as critical to deep levels of emissions reductions, gets relatively little mention in the modeling report. Arguably, an entire scenario could be built around potential for transmission upgrades, such as greater ease of moving electricity between the Western Interconnection grid, of which Colorado is a part, and the Eastern Interconnection, which starts at Kansas and Nebraska.
Ascend Analytics had conducted similar modeling about deep, deep decarbonization of electricity for Los Angeles Water and Power. The question in that study was what would it take for Los Angeles to achieve zero-emissions electricity?
Twenty years ago Colorado and its electrical utilities almost entirely embraced coal generation as the cheapest energy source far into the future. By 15 years ago, that resolve had weakened. Voters had adopted the state’s first renewable energy mandate and legislators had upped it. Wind prices were swooping down. Not least utilities had become confident of keeping lights on while deploying wind and solar.
A watershed year was 2017. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, which supplies roughly half of the electricity in the state, sought bids for new electrical generation. The low prices for wind and solar dramatically undercut those of fossil fuels. Proponents of renewables were elated. A year later, Xcel Energy announced its plans for 80% decarbonization by 2030. The paradigm had shifted.
Most of those wind, solar, and storage projects bid in 2017 have now or soon will go on line. Statistics for 2023 are not yet available. However, as of 2022, renewable energy accounted for 37% of the state’s electrical generation, with wind power accounting for four-fifths of that renewable generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Two coal plants have closed since 2017 and now eight more will be laid down before the end of 2031. One, Pawnee, located at Brush, is to be converted to natural gas.
Toor said his agency began having discussions in 2022 about the next steps beyond 2030. The questions guided creation of the modeling study. The state called in utilities, environmental groups, industrial sectors, and others for conversations about how to frame the study.
What some said
Ean Tafoya, the Colorado director for GreenLatinos, a national advocacy group, said he remembers the first meeting occurring in May. Based on the number of those interested in environmental justice invited to participate as stakeholders, he suspects dozens of stakeholders were involved.
The results of the modeling Tafoya described as “very promising.”
“It shows me that the emerging technologies that my community has been very concerned about, that we don’t need them,” he said, referring to hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration and direct-air capture as well as deep-well geothermal. “And if we can do this by 2040 without change of policy, that is very exciting.”
If Colorado can find ways to leverage capital through green infrastructure banking and address workforce training, Colorado “can truly be a leader nationally and globally,” he added.
Xcel Energy issued a statement that said the company was “encouraged by the Colorado Energy Office’s findings.”
“We agree there is a need for new 24/7 carbon-free technology to achieve deep carbon reductions. The state’s policies will enable us to reduce carbon emissions greater than 80% by 2030 and will inform our future investments into the local infrastructure necessary to move clean energy reliably into our customers’ homes – while keeping bills low.”
Do Colorado’s modeling results suggest a template for other states or regions of the United States, even other countries? Toor thinks so.
“It is saying that you can get to near-zero greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from electricity generation within the next 20 years —with no incremental cost to customers. That’s true with other states, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a red state or blue state. “Regulators and utilities should be excited about the ability to minimize costs to customers while nearly entirely eliminating emissions. I think that is a really important conclusion.”
That said, added Toor, other states are starting at different places. “We have already had substantial progress.”
Colorado also is blessed with renewable resources. It has wind – not the best, but among the best. It also has strong solar. Again, not the best, but very good.
“I want to be careful about claiming insight into other states, but I do think it is a very striking result that you can achieve such deep pollution reductions simply by developing the lowest-cost resources,” said Toor.
In creating the documents, Ascent based its projected costs of various technologies on projections by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory but also Ascend’s Market Intelligence Team.
How fast will technology move?
Even with those presumably careful calculations based on strong information, how good are they? After all, 20 years ago, the cost numbers argued for coal. Incredibly, some people still try to make that argument.
Also 20 years ago, many smart people projected the imminent arrival of both peak oil and, by extension, peak natural gas. Those projections, based on rear-view mirror data, failed to anticipate the rapid incremental advances in hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling and other extraction technology. From $14.50 per million Btu in 2008, natural gas prices plummeted to $2.50 with the recession – but never returned to the stratospheric levels that justified poking very deep holes across the Piceance Basin southwest of Craig. Meantime, the U.S. became a net exporter of oil.
Of course, we have had similar cost curves with wind, then solar, and now storage prices.
Might the same thing occur with geothermal, using underground heat to produce electricity, as is already done in California and some other places? Sarah Jewett, vice president for strategy at Fervo Energy, suggested cause for similar optimism in her industry during her remarks at the Colorado Rural Electric Association conference on Monday. The cost curve in recent projects in Utah and Nevada has been bending downward, she said.
Earlier that same day, a panel of experts about nuclear energy reported cause for optimism about nuclear, while yet another panel predicted reason to believe hydrogen will play an important role in the future.
Toor acknowledged the unexpected cost declines for many technologies. “It’s quite possible that hydrogen and other technologies will be lower cost than now projected,” he said.
Regardless, he added, these near-zero or zero-emissions pathways should become the baseline.
“I think it would be important that utilities are looking at new technologies and that utility regulators are able to look at getting to even deeper reductions based on what the actual cost trajectories turn out to be,” he said.
Colorado’s energy regulation framework is well suited to achieving those deep reductions —even deeper than the low-cost 98.5% emissions-free that this modeling suggests will be possible.
A final report, after review by stakeholders, is expected in December.
Following are what the modeling study cites as its key findings. The language is verbatim from the report:
The Economic Deployment scenario, which relies on current state and federal policies and is projected to meet demand at the lowest cost, is projected to reliably meet electricity needs in 2040 while achieving 98.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 from a 2005 level while also achieving near zero emissions reduction in nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide.
Wind and solar will be the main source of electricity in Colorado in 2040. In the Economic Deployment scenario, 76% of electricity comes from in-state wind and solar; 16% comes from out-of-state imports of near zero-emissions electricity (mostly wind from a wholesale electricity market); and 10% from energy efficiency, with the rest coming from other sources. Across all other scenarios, in-state wind and solar account for more than 90% of electricity.
In the Economic Deployment scenario, gas-fired electricity generation meets only about 1% of total need for electricity.
Under current cost assumptions, the Optimized 100 scenario, which achieves zero emissions by 2040 using a technology-neutral, least-cost approach, selects a substantial amount of hydrogen and a modest amount of geothermal to complement wind, solar, and batteries. It is 25% more expensive than the economic deployment scenario.
The Wind, Solar and Battery scenario is 20% more expensive than the Optimized 100 scenario and 50% more expensive than the least cost Economic Deployment scenario. The Accelerate Geothermal scenario is 11% more expensive than the Optimized 100.
The Optimized 100 scenario retires all gas-fired generation by 2040. It replaces retiring gas capacity primarily with clean hydrogen starting in 2032. By 2040, this scenario has 5,061 MW of clean hydrogen and 125 MW of geothermal generation.
The model does not select gas with carbon capture or advanced modular reactors in any scenario because of the cost.
The Accelerated Geothermal scenario adds a requirement to have 10% of demand met with geothermal in 2040, which results in 1,989 MW of installed capacity (compared to 125 MW in the Optimized 100 scenario).
Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Alex Wigglesworth and Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:
The expanse of Sierra National Forest near Shaver Lake is a relic of the climate before global warming. Scientists believe that the conifers won’t be able to survive the current conditions. Researchers at Stanford University found in a recent study that roughly one-fifth of all conifer forests in the Sierra are mismatched with the warmer climate and have become “zombie forests.”
The findings indicate that these lower-elevation Sierra conifer forests, which include ponderosa pine, sugar pine and Douglas fir, are no longer able to successfully reproduce. Conditions have become too warm and dry to support conifer saplings, whose shallow roots require plenty of water if they are to survive into adulthood, Hill said. Giant sequoias also grow in lower-elevation areas of the Sierra Nevada, but the researchers didn’t analyze the risks specific to those trees.
When these forests burn in high-severity wildfires — or are wiped out by drought, disease or pests — they will likely be replaced by other types of trees and brush, the scientists said. That could dramatically slash how much carbon the region can store; provide a habitat for invasive species; and displace plants and animals that call the forests home.
October 2023 | Beyond Plastics & International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN)
Chemical recycling — or what the industry likes to call “advanced recycling” — is increasingly touted as a solution to the plastic waste problem, but a landmark new report from Beyond Plastics and IPEN shows this technology hasn’t worked for decades, it’s still failing, and it threatens the environment, the climate, human health, and environmental justice. This comprehensive report features an investigation of all 11 constructed chemical recycling facilities in the United States, their output, their financial backing, and their contribution to environmental pollution.
The petrochemical and plastics industries have been aggressively working across America to pass state laws that reclassify chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing rather than waste facilities, which reduces regulation of these polluting plants and allows the companies to grab more public subsidies. As of this report’s release, 24 states have passed such laws. Just like mechanical recycling, chemical recycling is an industry marketing tactic to distract from the real solution to the plastic problem: reducing how much plastic is produced in the first place.
Deregulating and incentivizing chemical recycling is a dangerous trend with environmental and human health repercussions, though it’s not surprising when you consider how little information is publicly available about what chemical recycling actually does, how it does it, who it affects, how little plastic it removes from the waste stream, and how little product is actually produced.
This report unmasks chemical recycling’s history of failure, its lack of viability, and its harms so that others, especially lawmakers and regulators, can see this pseudo-solution for what it is: smoke and mirrors.
The clean-energy transition may be inevitable, but may not happen fast enough, IEA says
The flagship annual report from the International Energy Agency, dubbed the World Energy Outlook, offers a rosy prediction of the growth of clean-energy technologies around the world. It portrays the decline of fossil fuels, the main driver of rising global temperatures, as all but inevitable.
“The transition to clean energy is happening worldwide and it’s unstoppable,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol said in a statement. “It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s just a matter of ‘how soon’ — and the sooner the better for all of us.”
The IEA envisions green technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars taking off in the coming years, thanks to both supportive governmental policies and market forces. By 2030, it predicts:
Renewables’ share of the global electricity mix will approach 50 percent, up from around 30 percent today.
Three times as much investment will flow to offshore wind projects as to new coal- and gas-fired power plants.
The share of fossil fuels in the global energy supply will fall to 73 percent, down from about 80 percent today.
Still, demand for fossil fuels will remain too high for humanity to meet the goal of the Paris climate accord: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, the report says. On the supply side, the United States is churning out record amounts of oil. Yet negotiators at this fall’s United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, can make certain commitments that help keep the Paris target within reach, the IEA said. They include pledges to triple global renewable energy capacity and double the rate of energy efficiency improvements.
Colorado and Wyoming are collaborating to support a regional team working to power innovative pathways toward climate resiliency by utilizing data, predictive modeling and cutting edge technology to address key challenges. The Colorado-Wyoming Regional Innovation Engine (CO-WY Engine) is one of 16 finalists in the first-ever National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines Competition, which will award up to $160 million in funding over the next ten years.
Officials in both states recognize the opportunity to secure federal funding that will transform the region into a national leader in developing climate-resilient and sustainable technologies and expand economic opportunities and workforce development in these key areas.
To elevate the CO-WY Engine, Colorado and Wyoming have both committed to align resources that will support the Engine’s goals, including increased engagement of the business community with the region’s research institutions and Federal Labs; attracting more funding to support the commercialization and monetization of new technologies; and growing diversity within the region’s workforce to include rural communities.
“We are thrilled to partner with Wyoming on this plan as Colorado is leading our country on environmental tech to help address climate challenges. This funding will grow the work of our universities and federal labs while creating more jobs,” said Gov. Jared Polis.
“The pathway to a prosperous global future will be paved with adequate, affordable energy and a rigorous commitment to a healthy environment,” Gov. Gordon said. “Wyoming understands the urgency of addressing climate challenges. Our unequaled leadership in innovating and developing needed technologies supports Wyoming’s all-of-the-above energy strategy. This approach will grow our economy, develop our workforce and support thriving communities.”
The CO-WY Engine, spearheaded by Innosphere Ventures, looks to transform the region into a leader in the development and commercialization of climate-resilient and sustainable technologies. These technologies will support communities across the region and the country to monitor, mitigate and adapt to climate impacts. They are expected to have direct applications to water resource management, agriculture technology, and extreme weather, including wildfires and flooding.
“We can solve so many climate-related challenges with technology-driven solutions, and NSF funding will dramatically increase what we can accomplish,” said Mike Freeman, CEO of Innosphere Ventures and lead of the CO-WY Engine’s proposal to the NSF. “We are pleased to have the support of both Colorado and Wyoming, which have such a strong history of collaboration and share our commitment to creating an inclusive, nationally and internationally relevant Engine that employs a diverse workforce and benefits rural and urban communities alike.”
Among the initiatives being explored by Colorado and Wyoming, the Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Venture Capital, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and Colorado’s Venture Capital Authority are assessing the possibility of a venture capital fund or funds that will invest in startups commercializing technologies that emerge from the CO-WY Engine.
These commitments build upon existing collaboration between the two states, including a four state Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with New Mexico and Utah to create the Western Inter-State Hydrogen Hub to advance a regional hydrogen economy. Colorado and Wyoming have also signed an MoU outlining the states’ commitments to explore the development of direct air capture to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“Across the Midwest and Mountain States, Wyoming and Colorado rise to the top as one of only a handful of regions that have the talented workforce, collaborative business ecosystem, and research and development capabilities to become a national leader in developing climate resilient technologies. NSF funding will accelerate that growth exponentially, and we are committed to working with Colorado to seize this opportunity,” said Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council.
“In Wyoming, Colorado has found a nimble partner equally committed to growing a strong, diversified economy, engaging urban and rural communities alike, and leveraging our regional strengths to create new commercial opportunities that also create climate resiliency. Elevating shared priorities and resources like a regional venture capital fund will directly support the development of the CO-WY Engine as a national and global leader in climate-resilient technologies,” said Eve Lieberman, OEDIT Executive Director. The NSF Engines program envisions supporting multiple flourishing regional innovation ecosystems across the U.S., spurring economic growth in regions that have not fully participated in the technology boom of the past few decades.The NSF is expected to announce successful Regional Innovation Engines this fall.
Across the globe, people are turning to the courts to combat the worsening climate emergency. Since 2015, cases around the world have doubled to over 2,000, according to a recent United Nations report.
In a landmark trial in Montana, a judge ruled this summer that the state had violated the young plaintiffs’ “right to a clean and healthful environment” — a fundamental right enshrined in the Montana Constitution.
The case, Held v. Montana, is the first constitutional climate suit in U.S. history to make it to trial. The nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust brought the legal challenge on behalf of 16 young people, ranging in age from five to 22, against the state’s pro-fossil fuel policies.
They argued that Montana’s energy policy had harmed Montana’s environment and failed to protect their rights, citing a law that prevented state agencies from considering climate impacts when approving projects. The court sided with the plaintiffs and held that this restriction violated the state’s constitution.
Throughout the trial, experts testified to the public health threats from climate change. And the plaintiffs, many of them children, provided impactful testimonies on how Montana’s changing climate had hurt them both physically and mentally.
Some described experiencing severe allergies and respiratory illnesses due to increased air pollution and wildfire smoke. Others had witnessed their homes damaged by floods, suffered isolation from not being able to safely recreate outside, and expressed anguish over their futures knowing that glaciers are melting in the state they call home.
The Montana court set an important precedent by recognizing that a safe and stable climate is integral to the enjoyment of all other rights. This decision can inform other cases seeking to hold governments — along with fossil fuel companies — accountable for harms caused by climate change.
Young people are also pursuing constitutional climate cases in Hawaii, Virginia, and Utah.
Other states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island, along with cities like Boulder and Baltimore, Maryland, are suing for damages from Big Oil for allegedly concealing or misrepresenting the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
California filed suit this September against five of the largest oil and gas companies in the world for engaging in a “decades-long campaign of deception” about climate change. California is the largest oil-producing state and economy to take such legal action against Big Oil.
The lawsuit alleges that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, have all known for more than 50 years that burning fossil fuels would lead to global warming.
Yet rather than warn the public, the complaint details how the companies chose to publicly downplay and deny the dangers to the environment while aggressively promoting their products in California.
Through this lawsuit, California Attorney General Rob Bonta seeks to hold the fossil fuel companies financially responsible for contributing to climate-related damages in the state, create a fund to finance climate mitigation, and prevent these companies from further misleading the public. This approach is similar to that used against the tobacco industry.
Climate-related lawsuits face complex legal obstacles, like proving causality between fossil fuel industry practices and resulting harms. But if successful, they can make Big Oil pay for its well-documented role in the climate disaster — and ultimately transform how these companies do business.
Litigation alone won’t solve the climate emergency. The environmental justice movement will need to keep sustained pressure on our elected officials, many of whom have either enabled this crisis or been far too reluctant to act on it.
Together, this combination of litigation and grassroots advocacy sends a powerful message to policymakers that, in the words of Montana plaintiff Rikki Held, “We can’t keep passing on the climate crisis to future generations.”
Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):
To summarize the last three posts on this site – we have been looking at the generally ambiguous relationships between the United States federal government, the seven not-very-united states in the Colorado River region, and 30 recognized First People nations who inhabit the Colorado River Basin. The 30 nations, still primarily using Stone Age technology, were overrun, conquered and thoroughly dominated by the global Holocene expansion of European peoples with much superior technology and firepower – plus some nasty diseases that moved out ahead of the invaders, eliminating maybe as much as two-thirds or three-fourths of the First People populations.
The overrunning of the First Peoples was not done through any long-standing animus, as against ancient enemies; the hundreds of First People nations were just in the way. The Euro-Americans came in waves of ‘settlers’ who wanted to settle in and farm the land, and ‘unsettlers’ who wanted to rip into the land for the minerals, trees, grasses and waters that were the substance of a kind of wealth. To their ostensibly civilized perspective, the First Peoples wandering over those landscapes hunting and gathering what they could under a policy of usufruct (own the fruits but not their sources) were inefficient wastrels.
The spectrum of options for getting the post-pandemic remnant First Peoples off the land ranged from just killing them all – never really the official policy, although it was a practice mostly excused when the lunatic fringe took that bit in their teeth – to finally concentrating First Peoples forcibly on out-of-the-way reservations that were a fraction of their former land, or maybe even moving them on to a new place beyond the settlement frontier, thus freeing up most or all of their former land for the settlers and unsettlers of the ever-expanding urban-industrial civilization.
This reservation policy was accomplished under the guise of a paternalistic ‘trust’ arrangement, whereby the government would provide the supplies and education for ‘civilizing’ the First Peoples – ultimately a process of forced assimilation: ‘kill the Indian’ modified to ‘kill the Indian culture to save its people.’ This was often carried out through official policies like breaking the reservations up into individual allotments to teach a proper European respect for private property; it was also contracted to zealous faith-based organizations collecting souls for Jesus, and private sector suppliers collecting wealth for themselves, resulting in practices like pretty literally starving the First Peoples’ communal cultures on the reservation, and removing all the children to boarding schools where they were force-fed Christian-industrial culture.
These practices prevailed more or less unchallenged into the 1960s, until the Second People began to take a deeper look at their own consequences on the land, where the finally unignorable and increasingly deadly ‘smell of money’ – the air and water pollution, the forest-land erosion, the hidden or buried barrels of chemical wastes, all excused as the unavoidable consequences of wealth generation – caused growing doubts about the manifested destiny of the American way. And that led to a growing interest in exploring alternatives, including nostalgic reflections on Indian ways. The limited success of the American Indian Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s probably depended more on popular support from the Second People than from the First Peoples themselves.
Many of the reservations remain impoverished messes today – rural slums with high unemployment, high drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, physical and mental health challenges, and a general air of hopelessness and despair. At best the paternalist trust relationship has mostly been an embarrassment of inattention and indifference; at worst it has been at least passively corrupt, allowing leasing to outside companies of resource development on the reservations with little oversight, poor bookkeeping and wrongful diversion of funds, cheating the First Peoples out of billions in royalties.
Nonetheless, at this point in time, I think it can be said that most of the remaining 700-plus First Peoples in the United States have survived the centuries of efforts to kill their cultures – and have survived as still culturally distinct ‘nations.’ Their spiritual, economic and political heritages have been modified in many respects by the global overwhelm of industrial culture everywhere, but they are still relatively small and tight communal societies with internal spiritual bonding that helps them to resist some of the pressures of the mass society and industrial culture. The most successful tribal nations have taken control of their own futures (and resources), and become successful as much in spite of as on account of their Great Father trustees.
There’s probably no better example than the Southern Ute People, descendants of the Muache and Capota Ute bands who had ranged over the southern San Juan mountains and the San Juan River basin, but were finally confined around the turn of the 20th century to a 75 mile by 15 mile reservation in the extreme southwestern corner of Colorado. The Utes were one of the First Peoples who had responded to the Holocene ‘trauma of success’ – population growth and its pressure on traditional territories – by rejecting the turn toward farming (defensive concentration of food supplies), and instead had chosen to fight for their hunter-forager way of life, pitting their bands against bands of Comanches and Apaches, and Navajos after they arrived, who also rejected the conversion to farming – and then against the Spanish when they tried to move into El Norte, and finally against the mass of Euro-Americans moving westward.
Once they had stolen or otherwise ‘found’ the Spanish horses, these retro hunter-foragers developed a serious warrior culture, raiding and terrorizing the farming Peoples, and the Spanish land-grant settlers. But their main battles appear to have been against each other, all wanting to expand their old territories into each other’s territories; they often formed shifting alliances to gang up on each other.
Only the massive unstoppable wave of Euro-Americans from the east – the U.S. Army first, backed by the army of settlers and unsettlers – managed to gradually wear down, contain and eventually confine the remnants of the warrior Peoples to reservations. The Ute reservation for all their bands went from basically everything west of the Continental Divide in an 1850s agreement through several shrinking short-lived ‘in perpetuity’ treaties, to the small strip of land in southwestern Colorado for the Muache and Capota bands, an even smaller adjacent block of land (Ute Mountain Ute Reservation) for the Wiemenuche band, and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah for all the northern Ute bands. The Southern Utes today have a total tribal membership between 1,500-2,000, with about two-thirds living on the reservation; the Ute Mountain Utes have around 2,000 members, about half on the reservation; the Uintah Reservation is home for about half the tribal membership around 3,000.
The Southern Ute Reservation, however, turned out to be one of those pieces of worthless land given to the First Peoples that had significant resources hidden underground – fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and coalbed methane. In its paternalistic way – the Great Father from Washington taking care of his children – the Bureau of Indian Affairs began leasing access to those resources to outside interests, collecting royalties they then distributed to the members of the tribe – sums on the order of $1,000 a year plus or minus.
But the Southern Utes still had enough of their fighting spirit to question the accounting of the companies and the BIA’s oversight on the companies, and in the 1960s, in the spirit of the American Indian Movement, they set about taking control of the development of the reservation’s resources themselves, under the leadership of tribal chairman Leonard Burch. I haven’t the space here to give a detailed account of how the Southern Ute People did that; Jonathan Thompson did a good job of that in a High Country News article, for those interested in pursuing it further.
Suffice it to say, over the decades since Burch’s leadership, the tribal council has succeeded in taking control of the People’s destiny, with help from friends among the Second People – notably a Durango attorney, Sam Maynes, and his protege Tom Shipps who still works with the tribe, as well as a number of hired consultants and managers with experience in the gas industry. A lawsuit against the government by the neighboring Jicarilla Apaches established a tribal right to negotiate directly on royalties with the outside companies – which quickly resulted in the Southern Utes discovering that the companies had been shorting the tribe, with lackadaisical oversight from the BIA as the most charitable explanation.
Then in the 1990s, the council decided there was no reason they couldn’t do as well as the outside companies in developing their own resources, again with a little help from knowledgeable outsiders, and they set up the Red Willow Production Company to put tribal members to work drilling and piping for new wells; they began buying up existing wells, and created Red Cedar Company to ‘gather’ their produced gas and get it into the regional distribution pipelines.
This became a big enough business so it was becoming a bit hamstrung by being run by the tribal council, which as a democratic body, changed members frequently, and had too many other responsibilities to be also managing a growing corporate structure, so Red Willow was set up as a separate corporation, owned by the tribe but free to operate as an independent business with ultimate tribal council oversight. Its substantial earnings were divided between two funds: a Growth Fund under management of the corporation, and a Permanent Fund administered by the tribal council, essentially an endowment generating income from investment sufficient for tribal community governance. The Growth Fund pays annual dividends to every tribe member aged 26-59 and retirement benefits for those over 60 – substantially larger payments than the $1,000 plus or minus under BIA administration. The tribe gives out no information on the sums, but bits of information picked up by Thompson in his research put them in the middle tens-of-thousands of dollars. The Permanent Fund builds medical facilities and provides health care for the people. The Utes believe education is important and take schools seriously; they like the Montessori system for their young children. But they are still – or maybe it’s once again, with no ‘trustee’ resistance – raising the children as Utes, learning the language and doing the annual Bear Dance and other traditional festivals with the adults. And – sustaining a cross-cultural balance – anyone who wants to go to college gets a full-ride scholarship.
Realizing that they wanted to sustain the tribe well beyond the depletion of their unsustainable gas reserves, Growth Fund earnings beyond the direct distribution to the People are being invested in a variety of other activities, including oil and gas production on other reservations, a substantial investment in deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a wide range of real estate investments as far away as San Diego, and a private equity division that buys struggling companies to improve them (one hopes, rather than gutting them) and resell them. It is also into some more exploratory environmental things like carbon-reduction forest restoration work in the area’s ponderosa stands (part of the reservation extends into San Juan National Forest), using new technology to shred rather than burn thinned biomass and mixing it with sludge from sewage plants, creating a compost to return to the land; the tribe hopes that this plus some other strategies will help move them toward carbon-neutral status.
There is a minority in the tribe that worries that the Red Willow Production corporation is taking a turn toward the dark side – too much investment in gas and oil at a time when an environmental sensibility argues that responsible governments should be cutting back on that and investing in renewables. And the practices of private equity organizations have generally earned a bad reputation among anyone concerned about true cultura; equity. Is the tribal council still really in control, or is the tail wagging the dog? Our mainstream American experience of being politically and economically dominated by too-big corporations suggests that’s a question the Southern Utes should confront soon.
Still – anyone with a true democratic sensibility cannot look at this melding of First People communal culture and 20th-century industrial capitalism without a twinge of longing. The Southern Utes have a true ‘commonwealth’ – the land is a commons and its wealth belongs to everyone on the land. Those who work for Red Willow or the tribal government obviously get paid according to their level of responsibility and skill, above and beyond the Growth Fund dividends, but the dividends provide a well-woven safety net, their helth care is not an impenetrable mess, and no one has to assume a lifetime debt to get the education they need to pursue their personal vision.
One tries to imagine what we might be today if we had not allowed a comparative handful of We the People to keep almost all of the wealth extracted from the nation’s commons, but had instead invested it in We the People through a Ute-like form of social capitalism rather than mainstream American private capitalism…. One wonders, at this point, who should be learning civilized living from whom.
“But – where’s the water, the river that runs through it all? Next time back to that – another problem of western living in which the Utes look pretty good. Civilized means citified, trained, faithful to some regimen deliberately instituted. Civilization might be taken as a purely descriptive term, like Kultur, rather than a eulogistic one; it might simply indicate the possession of instruments,material and social, for accomplishing all sorts of things,whether those things were worth accomplishing or not.” – George Santayana, ‘Marginal Notes on Civilization in the U.S.’
Early analyses show global warmth surged far above previous records in September — even further than what scientists said seemed like astonishing increases in July and August. The planet’s average temperature shattered the previous September record by more than half a degree Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the largest monthly margin ever observed. Temperatures around the world last month were at levels closer to normal for July according to separate data analyses by European and Japanese climate scientists. September’s average temperature was about 0.88 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above 1991-2020 levels — or about 1.7 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal from before industrialization and the widespread use of fossil fuels.
A lot of money, of course, and a lot of new transmission in and around metropolitan Denver. What else is there in this package?
What an exciting time for Colorado.
We’re reinventing energy at a brisk pace that puts us in the front tier of states engaged — and also guiding — this necessary and critical transition.
And now we have specifics of what our largest electrical utility, Xcel Energy, with 1.6 million customers, prefers to do in meeting expanding demands for electricity while complying with a raft of state laws adopted beginning in 2019.
“This plan is transformational,” says Xcel in its filing from Monday night with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Yep.
You can download the report, “Our Energy Future: Destination 2030” Or go to the PUC e-files in proceeding 21A-0141E and look for Public 2021 ERP & DCEP.. There are several dozen related documents in the docket.
You’ve probably read the about this in the Denver Post or elsewhere. Lots of statistics. The most important one in 184 pages of statistics is this:
Xcel expects to be at 80% to 85% emissions-free energy by 2030. That not just a reduction as compared to 2005 levels. The law adopted in 2019 required it to achieve 80% reduction. This plan, if adopted and executed, goes higher. This is more than reduction. It goes roughly 10% higher.
The company says it can deliver this with a rate impact of about 2.25% annually. This compares with the projected rate of inflation of 2.3% during the remainder of the 2020s.
Too much? Well, Xcel does look out after its own financial interests. Robert Kenney, the president of Xcel’s Colorado division, made the case for reward for capital invested in an exchange Tuesday night with self-appointed and dedicated Xcel watchdog Leslie Glustrom at Empower Hour.
“I do believe we have seen the investor-owned utilities (around the country) spur innovation for nascent technologies into maturity,” said Kenney, who before his arrival in Colorado in June 2022 spent seven years with PG&E in California and, before that, as a PUC commissioner in Missouri for six years.
Xcel is moving boldly with the $14 billion in energy investments identified in this plan, but it may not even be the most impressive feat in Colorado. Holy Cross still says it expects to be at 100% emissions-free energy by 2030. And Tri-State, too long the epitome of a drag-your-feet G&T, is not terribly far behind — if it can keep its members. But that’s another story.
Keep in mind, this is not just fuel switching. It’s also fuel expansion. We will need double or triple the electricity as we electrify buildings and transportation. We’ve barely begun.
This is on top of population expansion within metro Denver, the primary market for Xcel Energy. Xcel projects increased demand (called load, in the terminology of electrical providers) at 300 megawatts by 2026.
Xcel’s report notes that the population growth in the Denver metro area has consistently outpaced the national rate in every decade since the 1930s.
That said, much in Xcel’s preferred plan was unsurprising. It lays out a broad program for 6,545 megawatts of new renewable projects, broken down in this way:
3,400 megawatts for wind;
1,100 megawatts of solar;
1,400 megawatts of solar combined with storage;
19 megawatts of biomass (forest trees at a plant in Hayden);
600 megawatts of standalone storage.
And to think, aside from the 340-megawatt Cabin Creek pumped-storage hydro at Georgetown, Colorado’s largest battery storage facility last winter was still only 5 megawatt-hours (at the Holy Cross project between Glenwood Springs and Basalt).
This year, Xcel has added 225 megawatts of battery storage to Front Range locations. That was the result of a 2016 resource plan. These things do take time.
Xcel said it proposes six times more storage as compared to its contemplation earlier in this process — a result directly of incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
That federal package also delivers other benefits. It will, says Xcel, bring “billions of dollars in federal support to Colorado.” It estimates $10 billion in IRA benefits to customers.
Big investment in transmission
Transmission figures prominently in this plan.
PUC commissioners last fall approved the Power Pathway Project, a $1.7 billion string of high-voltage transmission lines looping 560 miles from near the Pawnee power plant at Brush and around the eastern plains and back to the Front Range. Construction began in June.
Xcel says its “existing transmission system is capable of reliably serving our customers today, but the energy transition cannot be accomplished with only minor changes to the transmission system.”
This plan proposes an additional $2.82 billion in transmission investments.
Part of that is the May Valley-Longhorn extension from the May Valley substation north of Lamar to Baca County, in the state’s southeastern corner. The 50-mile extension, called Longhorn — as most everything is called in the Springfield area — would cost $252 million. It figures prominently in Xcel’s plans because, as this report explains, Xcel finds the wind to be of low cost and its characteristics complementary to wind in other locations.
“Wind generation in the southeast portion of Colorado exhibits materially different generation patterns and will thus be a useful improvement to our system in adding geographic diversity to our overall renewable generation portfolio.”
Or, to paraphrase what I heard from locals in a visit there last week: the wind always blows in Baca County. They can describe the different winds with the expertise that a wine connoisseur might apply to various vintages.
Xcel says the Longhorn transmission extension will deliver 1,206 megawatts of wind. It also says that this wind will save the company – and hence consumers – a great deal of money: $282 million.
That deserves a wow!
However, if that Baca County wind were excluded, there would be more solar and storage.
The San Luis Valley also stands to get transmission upgrades. Appendix Q in the filings says this:
“The area has rough, remote, and challenging geography and weather, significant permitting issues due to a patch work of state and federal land use designations (conservation easements, U.S. Forest Service-managed land, National Park Service managed lands, and multiple state-protected areas).”
Electrical deliveries arrive almost entirely via three transmission lines crossing Poncha Pass. The valley residents are served by both Xcel and by Tri-State members. Both utilities have tried to create solutions since a 1998 study identified the problems. Some Band-Aids have helped.
Xcel proposes to spend $176 million to improve the situation in the San Luis Valley. Additional transmission would also open the door to development of new solar.
Most surprising to me — likely because I do not read the filings on the PUC dockets religiously – is how much Xcel believes it needs to spend in metro Denver: $2.146 billion.
It justifies the expense with this explanation.
“The company’s analysis shows that a new phase of the transition is emerging – reliably managing power transmission within and around the metropolitan area,” says the report. (Page 33).
“Delivery of remote resources is still an important consideration of transmission planning, as evidenced by the critical role that the CPP (Colorado Power Pathway) plays in enabling the preferred plan. However, as the company moves toward a grid powered primarily by renewable resources, and less reliant on legacy urban power plants, transmission investments are increasingly focused on enhancing the capacity and resiliency of the entire transmission grid —including those parts of the grid located closest to our customers’ homes and businesses.”
Why so much money for transmission upgrades in metro Denver? In part, says Xcel, it’s because of the lack of bids for resources within the metro area. The report and an accompanying appendix do not discuss reasons why the company failed to get those close-in resources.
That takes us to natural gas —and the related issue of how well Xcel can meet peak demands caused by extreme weather. The environmental community has been insistent that Xcel needs to reduce or eliminate its investment in natural gas generation. Xcel has maintained that natural gas must remain part of the equation, at least in this planning period, because alternatives have not yet been firmed up.
The company proposes to have 628 megawatts of capacity. This, it says, will solve the “reliability and resiliency variables” of a hot period in the summer of 2028.
In short, Xcel has to prepare for hot summers and cold winters. The base case is a hot spell in July 2022 and Winter Storm Uri of 2021. At both times, renewables underperformed. (I might have thought reference cases to a much hotter time of the future would have been used, but maybe I’m missing something).
What enables Xcel to meet the peak demands for cooling or heating? It could add on even more proven storage, altogether 3,700 megawatts worth, and over 13,000 megawatts of renewables, but at a cost of $5.4 billion more than this plan.
Instead, Xcel sees natural gas being the answer. The company emphasizes modeling that shows the new 400 megawatts of natural gas-created electricity will be needed only 5% of the time. Most of the time, they will sit idle. But, when needed, some can ramp up in a matter of 2 to 10 minutes, others as long as 30 minutes. This compares with coal plants, which mostly took 18 hours to ramp up.
Xcel is proposing a reserve margin of 18%. That’s how much capacity it plans on top of what it thinks it needs. All utilities have some reserve margins.
Game changers in next few years?
Storage is a major component of this part of this Xcel pivot and energy transition story altogether.
“The availability of cost-competitive utility-scale storage is reducing, but not eliminating, the need for new carbon emitting capacity resources – namely in inclement weather and during long-duration high-load situations,” says Xcel.
Will we get a break-through that will change the narrative?
Xcel plans a demonstration project at Pueblo that it expects to get underway in late 2024 to test the efficacy of a new storage technology called iron-rust that the developers believe can store energy for up to 100 hours. Along with its partner, Form Energy, it received a $20 million grant in April from the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst. This week, Xcel announced a grant of up to $70 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. Both grants are to be split between the Pueblo project and a parallel project in Minnesota.
If this proves out, does this change the ball game, largely eliminating the need for natural gas?
Xcel nods at this question, pointing to modeling results that “Highlighting the need for further advancements in technology and a more diverse portfolio of resources may be needed to help economically reach our clean energy goals in the future.”
It also talks about using fuels other than natural gas – think hydrogen and ammonia and biogas —in these plans.
This natural gas component will be the most hotly disputed element of the Xcel plan—as it has been for the last two years.
Also raising my eyebrows in this 120-day report:
A recent Colorado law sought to nudge utilities into accelerating new technology. The rule-making by the PUC in regard to this Section 123 provision specified that the resources must be “new, innovative, and not commercialized technology, and provide unique, scalable and beneficiation attributes as to future costs, emissions, reduction, or reliability benefits.” “Wind, solar or lithium-ion based battery storage,” concluded the PUC, do not qualify.
Xcel solicited bids and got a variety of proposals, including:
a plant in the San Luis Valley that could burn a variety of clean fuels including hydrogen and ammonia;
a hydrogen fuel cell project near Brush that would use salt-storage caverns to deliver 10-hour storage;
a 5-megawatt geothermal power plant in Weld County that would mine the 135 degree C (275 degrees F) non-potable water found deep underground.
Xcel found all of these proposals from bidders wanting for one reason or another. However, that’s not a solid no in all the cases, the company added.
Biomass at Hayden
The company proposes a 19-megawatt biomass plant at Hayden, burning dead trees from northwest Colorado to produce electricity. Colorado has an existing biomass plant at Gypsum, which is a little smaller, 11.5 megawatts, in capacity. It burns wood from as far away as the Blue River Valley between Silverthorne and Kremmling.
The company points out that it has closed 18 generating units across its service territory during the last 15 years without any forced workforce reductions.
It says it will leverage natural attrition and worker retirements, and the remaining workers will be “up-skilled to operate and maintain the new clean energy assets or, if they choose, relocated and or transited and reskilled into another job.”
For example, it says, workers at the Hayden coal-burning plant have 80% of the skills, on average, needed to operate and maintain a biomass unit. The company says it will work with the biomass unit vendor, Colorado Northwestern Community College, and others to identify the additional training needed.
As part of its plans for Pueblo, where the Comanche 3 coal-burning plant is scheduled for retirement by 2031, Xcel plans to solicit bids that will fill out what the company needs in that final segment of 2028-2030.
The projects need to help out Pueblo County economically, even though Xcel has already committed to paying taxes on Comanche 3 in lieu of its operation until 2040.
Will it be nuclear? Xcel has not ruled out nuclear, but neither does it see nuclear as an option for 2030.
Xcel Energy Colorado’s CEO Kenney, in his remarks at Empower Hour, said the company sees small modular reactors and related technology under development as having promise.” But, he added, “It is unlikely such technologies will be trued up on a timeline to replace Comanche 3. But it will absolutely be a technology that we will continue to explore.”
Social cost of carbon
The planning considerations for this are so much more complex than those of the past. Decisions must be filtered through the social cost of carbon and also the social cost of methane. There are considerations about disproportionately impacted communities. And, as noted above, we have “just transition” as a consideration.
The simile of a triathlon race
Such documents are not ordinarily noted for their literary flourishes, and this one is no exception. But it must be noticed that aa simile found on page 62 is worth calling out:
“Getting to this point is like training to get to the starting line of a triathlon. We are excited, we have a support team at the ready, we understand the challenges, and we are looking forward to taking them on with a good plan in place. But that does not mean that implementation and execution of the plan will be easy, and unknown challenges lie ahead given the breadth of generation and transmission development contemplated by this plan.”
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:
Federal land managers have proposed blocking future oil and gas development on more than a million acres of Colorado’s Western Slope as they reshape how they handle energy development in the face of a drying and warming West. The Bureau of Land Management’s draft management plan for a swath of land between the Utah border and Eagle would close 1.6 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing. If approved, the plan would forestall the drilling of hundreds of future wells.
“What we’re seeing here is a draft management plan that is really reflecting the changing economy of the region, which is becoming less dependent on oil and gas extraction,” said Erin Riccio, advocacy director for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop…
The management plan would drastically reduce the percentage of land available for leasing — from 85% of the area to 20%. It would block roughly 599 new oil and gas wells over the next 20 years, according to the BLM. Currently, 125,400 acres in the area already are closed to oil and gas leasing. If the BLM enacts its proposed plan — called “Alternative E” based on its review of multiple possibilities — an additional 1.4 million acres would be closed…
There was another option considered by the BLM, labeled Alternative F, that would close even more land to oil and gas leasing. That plan would block about 95% of the Western Slope area at issue to leasing, leaving only 104,100 acres open to development. Alternative F would add protections for habitats of endangered species such as the humpback chub, a river fish, as well as for recreation areas, the Dolores River corridor, watersheds for municipal water supplies and habitats for trout, birds and bighorns. The plan would block the creation of about 779 wells, the BLM estimated.
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Anne MacKinnon):
Climate change poses challenges for Wyoming water law, seen these days on the Grand Encampment River southwest of Saratoga.
The Encampment River valley is like many small, irrigated valleys in Wyoming. It was once the home of a few pioneer ranches that built a network of ditches, but the ranches have been divided up, the river has moved over time, and people have kept irrigating using the old ditches, sometimes with a little jerry-rigging. The Encampment valley is also narrow, with usually more than enough water, so state water officials haven’t had to “regulate” to keep water use in line with water rights.
Enter the Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Carbon County’s biggest employer. Its workforce includes people from the Encampment valley, located some 40 miles away. In just the last year and a half, the oil company that took over the refinery bought a ranch on the Grand Encampment River.
The attraction: the old water rights on the ranch. The goal: to bolster the refinery’s water supply in the face of climate change.
Two years out of the last six, the Upper North Platte Basin has seen climate change in low snowpack. It has meant that in spring, the refinery couldn’t legally use its own 100-year-old water rights. Refinery managers had to arrange for temporary use of older water rights from elsewhere. Buying the Encampment ranch offers the new refinery’s owners, called HF Sinclair, a more permanent solution for those low snow-pack years.
That has some neighbors worried. Now, how water works in the Encampment valley — which lands are irrigated or not, when and through what ditch — must be examined.
It might seem neighboring irrigators wouldn’t care if a ranch won’t use its water rights in some years. But in a classic Wyoming spot like the Encampment valley, where the water rights and ditches and the irrigation practices and the water table and the water runoff from irrigation are interwoven, the refinery’s water use could disrupt the current pattern.
HF Sinclair’s plan will test the capacity of Wyoming water law to serve both the refinery and the Encampment irrigation community in the era of climate change. Will water officials’ decisions start to unravel the fabric of the community, as some fear, or will it leave that fabric substantially intact?
Most climate change headlines in Wyoming have focused on the Colorado River Basin, but the Upper North Platte River Basin — embracing both the Sinclair refinery on the North Platte and the Encampment River, a North Platte tributary upstream — has also gotten steadily hotter in the last 20 years.
HF Sinclair’s proposal to move water rights from one location to another — in response to the impending climate crisis — is a prospect that has long alarmed Wyoming irrigators. The fear is that “drying up” a ranch can damage local economies. Such moves were once mostly illegal in Wyoming, and many irrigators believe they still are. But 50 years ago in another national crisis — rising energy prices, creating demand for power plants in Wyoming — the state changed its law to allow such moves if they meet strict standards. There must, for instance, be proof of how much water was consumed at the original spot — no more can be consumed at the new spot, and the amount of water that used to return to the stream from the original irrigation must be left in the stream at that point.
Notably, HF Sinclair is not proposing to dry up its ranch with any such permanent move of water rights. Only in low snowpack years would the refinery activate a new arrangement — a proposed “exchange.” The plan is that in those years the refinery would legally get to use its rights on the North Platte despite low flows, while it would not irrigate its Encampment ranch at all in spring or summer. That would allow Encampment water unused at the ranch to flow down the North Platte to Pathfinder Reservoir as “makeup” water, as required by the Wyoming water exchange law.
HF Sinclair also says it will invest in the interconnected headgate and ditch system on the Encampment to make sure that when the ranch does not tap the Encampment River at all for a year, neighbors still get water for their rights.
There is heavy pressure for an uncomplicated review of HF Sinclair’s plan. The company does not hesitate to underline the implications for sustaining local jobs. To get approval, the company has hired a phalanx of high-powered law and technical people, including a former Wyoming State Engineer.
But leading irrigators on the Encampment have asked state officials for a thorough review — they don’t, however, want the cost and trouble of hiring lawyers and engineers to fall on them. The Wyoming Stock Growers, meanwhile, this summer called for public meetings on water changes as a review of Sinclair’s plans got underway.
Neighbors don’t have grounds to complain if a ranch just decides not to irrigate in a few years. But because HF Sinclair is proposing a legal change, the ranch neighbors have brought concerns to the state water officials who must decide whether to approve the exchange.
To get that approval, HF Sinclair must take two steps: first clean up the water rights on the ranch, and then get the exchange petition granted.
Cleanups are standard in places like the Encampment River, since actual use of old water rights in Wyoming often changes over decades, as streams move a little and ditches fall into disuse. Often old water rights must be identified and nailed down to the current use, at the expense of the right-holder. Sometimes, cleanups get complicated. The strict standards of Wyoming’s water-moves law can apply, if change over time includes water moving some distance.
HF Sinclair is asking for a simple cleanup, which could avoid that scrutiny. The company has filed documents to show that only relatively insignificant changes in irrigation have taken place in over a century of ranch operations — nothing that should invoke the scrutiny required for serious movements of water rights.
There are, of course, all kinds of questions that could arise in HF Sinclair’s cleanup: How much of the ranch’s Encampment River rights have actually been used, where and from what headgates? Does the groundwater level in low-lying lands mean that water consumption there can’t really be stopped, and maybe fields there haven’t required much irrigation water? Has enough irrigation water been used on other ranch fields to provide the proposed “makeup” water for the exchange?
How intensely to review HF Sinclair’s cleanup is a decision for the state Board of Control (the State Engineer and the superintendents of Wyoming’s four geographical water divisions). Then HG Sinclair’s separate request for an exchange – a transaction expressly encouraged by state law – goes to the State Engineer alone to decide.
It will take months or years to see how Wyoming’s water rights review process plays out in this case. And the practical impact may finally depend on how many low snowpack years the future holds for the North Platte Basin. But ultimately, what happens on the Encampment will say a lot about how the state’s water law system will handle the pressures on water that are brought by climate change.
Relatively smooth approval of an exchange on the Encampment could encourage towns and industries in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins to seek their own exchanges. For them, exchanges could be a solution to water supply shutdowns threatened by climate change on the Colorado River. In recent years the State Engineer’s Office has suggested that exchanges could be useful for that purpose, using reservoirs as makeup water.
On the Encampment, HF Sinclair’s experts include former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, former Division I Water Superintendent Brian Pugsley, and veteran water lawyer Dave Palmerlee.
The facts on the ground may well be such that the refinery’s proposal would easily survive any tough scrutiny. But the way the consultants have couched the requests makes it appear they’re betting they won’t trigger that kind of review, so they get approval — and relatively quickly.
The Encampment community’s fear of local damage has brought an audience to the normally unnoticed Board of Control meetings, however.
Nearby ranchers would like to see Sinclair offer a signed contract for the investment in headgates and ditches to secure access to all neighbors’ water rights. They don’t want to contend with Sinclair’s experts in formal hearings or appeals. But they do want a very careful state review.
The climate crisis is no longer a looming threat – people are now living with the consequences of centuries of greenhouse gas emissions. But there is still everything to fight for. How the world chooses to respond in the coming years will have massive repercussions for generations yet to be born.
In my book How to Save Our Planet, I imagine two different visions of the future. One in which we do very little to address climate change, and one in which we do everything possible.
This is what the science suggests those very different realities could look like.
Year 2100: the nightmare scenario
The 21st century draws to a close without action having been taken to prevent climate change. Global temperatures have risen by over 4°C. In many countries, summer temperatures persistently stay above 40°C. Heatwaves with temperatures as high as 50°C have become common in tropical countries.
The extra heat in the ocean has caused it to expand. Combined with water from melting ice sheets, sea levels have risen by more than one metre. Many major cities, including Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and Miami, are already flooded and uninhabitable. The Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and many other small island nations have been abandoned.
Fish stocks have collapsed. The acidity of the ocean has increased by 125%. The ocean food chain has collapsed in some regions as the small marine organisms that form its base struggle to make calcium carbonate shells and so survive in the more acidic waters.
This is what our planet could look like if we do everything in our power to contain climate change.
Global temperatures rose to 1.5°C by 2050 and remained there for the rest of the century. Fossil fuels have been replaced by renewable energy. Over a trillion trees have been planted, sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The air is cleaner than it has been since before the industrial revolution.
Global diets have shifted away from meat. Farming efficiency has greatly improved during the transition from industrial-scale meat production to plant-based sustenance, creating more land to rewild and reforest.
Half of the Earth is dedicated to restoring the natural biosphere and its ecological services. Elsewhere, fusion energy is finally set to work at scale providing unlimited clean energy for the people of the 22nd century.
Two very different futures. The outcome your children and grandchildren will live with depends on what decisions are made today. Happily, the solutions I propose are win-win, or even win-win-win: they reduce emissions, improve the environment and make people healthier and wealthier overall.
Backed by the promise of billions in federal dollars, energy companies are lining up to accept an invitation by Wyoming officials to collect industrial sources of carbon dioxide and pump it deep underground.
Essentially, the vision is to build a new low-carbon energy industry that scrubs the planet-warming gas from fossil fuels, keeping those fuels in the energy mix and simultaneously helping to address the climate crisis in a way that pays dividends to developers and the state.
Wyoming, according to Gov. Mark Gordon and other state officials, is primed to launch the industry. Not only has the state spent years testing its subterranean capacity to permanently store carbon dioxide, it has devoted more than a decade to building a legal and regulatory framework to win the federal government’s approval. Only Wyoming and North Dakota have won primacy over the federal program to permit such activities.
Now, the state’s top environmental regulator is considering the first in what many expect to be a wave of permit applications to drill the deep wells necessary to launch the new industry.
“Since 2010 [Wyoming has] been working on how to ensure this particular program could get off the ground and be protective of the environment with a lot of the risks that are involved with these kinds of projects,” said Lily Barkau, natural resources program manager at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
The agency is soliciting public comments on three carbon dioxide injection well permit applications submitted by Frontier Carbon Solutions. Two more “Class VI” permits are under review at the agency, but not yet ready for public feedback.
Industry and regulatory officials eagerly note that pumping carbon dioxide underground isn’t fantasy. For decades, oil and gas developers have pumped the gas into oilfield formations to squeeze out more oil. Wyoming even has a “backbone” carbon dioxide pipeline that delivers the gas from southwestern and central Wyoming to multiple oilfields in the northeast corner of the state and into Montana.
While Wyoming still hopes to expand “enhanced oil recovery” via carbon dioxide injection, officials are also eager for companies to pump the gas deeper underground into saline formations. Here, at depths of 10,000 to 15,000 feet, carbon dioxide — compressed into liquid form — can be pumped and stored permanently, according to state and industry officials.
There are skeptics, however, and many questions about the logistics of deep carbon dioxide “sequestration,” as well as whether all of the public resources invested are justified.
Skepticism and questions
So far, capturing carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks — be they attached to trona processing plants, cement factories or coal-fired power plants — hasn’t proven economical at large scale. However, industry officials point to the federal 45Q tax credit — which was expanded under the Inflation Reduction Act — for vastly improving the economics of carbon capture and storage.
Until industrial facilities in the southwest region of the state — including in corners of Colorado and Utah — are fitted with carbon capture, Frontier Carbon Solutions plans to collect its carbon dioxide from a “direct air capture” project still in development.
Other questions remain:
How will facilities such as direct air capture farms get carbon-free power without sprawling renewable energy development on sensitive landscapes?
How much will it cost to safely manage highly saline water displaced by carbon dioxide in deep geologic formations?
And, is all the time and public resources merely a distraction from proven renewable energy and the declining costs of installing wind and solar energy?
“Billions of dollars have been wasted trying to prove that this technology is real,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, told the Associated Press in May. “And all we have to show for it are a series of spectacular failures.’’
Projects under review
Texas-based Frontier Carbon Solutions is a partner in the Sweetwater Carbon Storage Hub project in southwest Wyoming. The effort is part of the federal CarbonSAFE Initiative led by the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, which won $40.5 million in support from the U.S. Department of Energy. UW and Frontier Carbon Solutions will contribute another $10.1 million to the project for a total of $50.6 million, according to DOE and university officials.
The “storage hub” will have a minimum storage capacity of 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the life of the project — about 20 years, according to Frontier Carbon Solutions. For context, Wyoming’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from industrial fossil fuel consumption — excluding motor vehicle pollution — was 54.6 million metric tons in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The company is seeking three permits under the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Underground Injection Control program. Public comment closes Oct. 19.
Click here for more information about the company’s permit applications. Comments can be submitted electronically via DEQ-online portals for each of the three permits: permit 242, permit 243 and permit 244. Comments may also be submitted by mail to: Ms. Lily Barkau, P.G., Groundwater Section Manager, Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Water Quality Division, 200 West 17th Street, 2nd Floor, Cheyenne, WY 82002.
DEQ will also hold a public hearing on the Class VI well permits, with dates yet to be announced. If the permits are approved, the company will still have to submit more information from initial drilling activities before DEQ can grant Frontier Carbon Solutions a permit to actually inject carbon dioxide, Barkau said.
Tallgrass Energy is also seeking a Class VI injection well permit for its Eastern Wyoming Sequestration Hub in Laramie County. That permit is not yet up for public comment. However, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is seeking public comment regarding the company’s application for rights-of-way on federal surface in Laramie County.
Public comment has been extended to Oct. 10. More about the project and how to comment can be found on the BLM’s project website.
Tallgrass was awarded $4.1 million for the project from the Wyoming Energy Authority in 2022, which the company will match in full, according to the agency. The grant comes from a $10 million legislative appropriation for carbon capture, storage and utilization projects.
First round of carbon dioxide injection permitting
The state won authority over the program after more than a decade of legislation to establish a legal and regulatory framework to allow for the geologic storage of carbon dioxide.
That framework includes settling the question of who owns the underground “pore space” where carbon dioxide will be stored. The state declared it belongs to the surface estate, which clarifies who gets paid for use of the pore space and who is liable. The state also set out to appease potential developers by giving them an opportunity to transfer their liability for carbon dioxide injections to the state if they meet post-closure requirements intended to protect water and human health, according to Barkau.
Wyoming, with primacy over the federal Class VI injection well permitting program, can shave years off the permitting process, Barkau said. And that makes Wyoming an attractive place to launch carbon dioxide storage projects.
“I think we’ve been able to prove that if the operator is willing to work collaboratively, it can be done in a very expedited time frame and still meet all of the rules and regulations and be protective of human health and the environment,” Barkau said.
Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) opponents floated a portion of the Colorado River on Aug. 26 to celebrate a setback to the UBR. Organized by two citizen groups — Colorado Rising and 350 Roaring Fork — a flotilla of about 30 boats and 100 activists put in at Grizzly Creek in the Glenwood Canyon and landed at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs for a rally and picnic. The flotilla was originally planned as a protest to draw attention to the river and what would happen if a train carrying waxy crude derailed in the Glenwood Canyon.
“We’re not fighting a train. We’re not fighting increased train traffic. We’re a rail town,” said former Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes, who is now a City Council member and who emceed the rally. “We’re fighting a train that is full of toxic, waxy crude. To think that five trains, two miles long, every day would not derail in one of the most difficult, sensitive places on the entire line is crazy.”
The Colorado River is the lifeblood for local communities and provides water to 40 million people across the western U.S. and parts of Mexico. The proposed UBR — an 88-mile line that would connect oil fields in the Uinta Basin to the national rail network near Price, Utah, in order to access Gulf Coast refineries — would increase the amount of waxy crude shipped east by rail to between 130,000 to 350,000 barrels per day. The federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) approved the UBR in December 2021, which was followed by two separate lawsuits — one filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) on behalf of four other conservation groups, and another by Eagle County. They were consolidated in February 2022. On Aug. 18, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins overturned the STB’s decision, transforming the planned flotilla from a protest to a celebration. Five Colorado counties and five municipalities along the national railway — the proposed route for eastbound Uinta Basin waxy crude — signed on to an amicus brief in support of Eagle County in October, making the Aug. 18 decision a victory across the state.
Ted Zukoski, CBD attorney, told Aspen Journalism that the STB and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), whose flawed biological opinion (BiOp) informed the STB’s decision, must go back to the drawing board. “The existing approvals from the STB and FWS are null and void,” he said. “The UBR has been knocked back a number of steps.”
A CBD news release summarized Wilkins’ ruling by stating that the STB “violated the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] by failing to fully analyze the railway’s potential harm to the climate, wildlife, the Colorado River and people, including environmental justice communities along the Gulf Coast.” Key findings show a mixed bag of what counted as a violation and what did not.
According to the ruling, NEPA violations include ignoring the risk to endangered fish in the Colorado River and failure to take a hard look at upstream and downstream impacts of oil production, accident data and downline wildfire risk. The court’s discussion of the UBR’s impacts from production in the Uinta Basin and the downstream impacts on communities near refineries continues a line of precedent and keeps federal agencies accountable, said Zukoski.
“When federal agencies are the on/off switches for climate impacts, air pollution impacts, surface impacts of wildlife habitat, they can’t say, as the [STB] did here, ‘Oh, no, not our problem. We don’t control who develops oil in the Uinta Basin. We don’t know where the oil is going. We’re just approving the railway,’” he said. “The court saw through that.”
In the December 2021 decision, STB Chair Martin Oberman cast the sole dissenting vote, stating that “the environmental impacts outweigh the transportation merits.” Oberman’s opinion questioned his colleagues’ evaluation of the downstream impacts of the UBR and the overall contribution to climate change. He also cited the financial viability of the project given volatile oil prices and the shifting fossil fuel industry.
Wilkins found that the STB violated its own rail policies by looking at the UBR’s economic benefits while ignoring the full significance of the UBR’s environmental costs. He did not uphold plaintiffs’ claims about failure to address landslide risks, violation of the National Historic Preservation Act, downline impacts on biological resources, land use and recreation, or increased noise and potential impacts to the Tennessee Pass rail line.
Glenwood Springs pleased with outcome
Glenwood Springs City Attorney Karl Hanlon, who worked on the amicus brief in support of Eagle County, told Aspen Journalism that the circuit court opinion was a “huge, huge win,” particularly for the process. “There were things that [the court] did accept and things that they didn’t,” he said. “But at the core of it, NEPA requires a more detailed analysis than [the STB] did. You can’t just sort of gloss over it and rubber-stamp a NEPA process.”
Hanlon said the money and time that Glenwood Springs and other towns spent working on the amicus brief was well spent. “I think [the ruling] lays out three really big areas,” he said. “Quantifying the reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts from increased drilling in the Uinta Basin on vegetation and special status species, the increased oil train traffic along the UP line, and the issue of environmental justice on the Gulf Coast.”
According to a 2018 feasibility study conducted as part of the EIS, most of the refineries equipped for Uinta Basin waxy crude are in MIssissippi and Louisiana, including Marathon Petroleum in Garyville, Louisiana. On Aug. 25, a massive fire at that refinery, caused by a leaky naphtha tank, produced a plume of black smoke and forced nearby evacuations. “This is the kind of harm the Uinta Basin Railway will worsen by pouring billions of gallons of crude per year into Gulf Coast refineries,” said Zukoski. “And the kind of harm that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals explicitly held that the [STB’s] EIS failed to take a hard look at.”
Hanlon is satisfied with the ruling and how comprehensive it was. He said it’s a win for those who work on conservation and environmental issues. “I think it affirms the rules that we all thought we were operating under, right? That these agencies have to take these analyses seriously,” he said.
Godes added that he’s proud of the stance that many Colorado communities have taken. “We are in a really good space with a recent victory,” he said at the rally. “We have a lot of support. This flotilla is proof of that. All of the neighboring communities and jurisdictions, save for Garfield County, have come out against this.”
“While we disagree with the D.C. Circuit Court’s recent decision, we respect the authority of the U.S. Court of Appeals,” the statement said. “We firmly believe that the railway’s environmental impact statement (EIS) contains appropriate and thorough analysis of the highlighted concerns, as it stands today. Nonetheless, we are ready, willing and capable of working with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to ensure additional reviews and the project’s next steps proceed without further delay. We look forward to bringing this railway to the basin in a safe and cost-effective way to enable economic stability, sustainable communities and an enriched quality of life to Utahns and beyond.”
Zukoski said there are strategies the SCIC could use as result of the Wilkins ruling, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “But they are better off just saying, ‘Well, now we have a roadmap from the courts on what we need to fix. Let’s go fix it.” He added that the “fix” would be, more or less, a do-over. “They’re going to need approval from the STB again,” he said.”They’re going to need to go through a supplemental environmental impact statement process and get a new biological opinion from the FWS that looks at the spill risk to endangered fish.”
Hanging in the balance are the September 2022 lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) decision to allow construction of the UBR through an inventoried roadless area (IRA); the expansion of the Wildcat Loadout Facility near Price, which would allow an increase in production, storage and transport of Uinta Basin crude regardless of the success or failure of the UBR; and the use of Private Activity Bonds (PAB) issued through U.S. Department of Transportation to fund the UBR. The City of Glenwood Springs wrote a letter to U.S. Transporation Secretary Pete Buttigeig in early August against the use of PAB bonds and requesting a meeting this month. “It would be incredibly precedent-setting if we ever started allowing our tax dollars to be utilized by a private corporation for their profit and their shareholders,” Godes said at the rally. “It doesn’t benefit Colorado and it doesn’t benefit this country.”
USFS suit undecided
The USFS approved construction of the UBR in July 2022 through 12 miles of an IRA in Utah’s Ashley National Forest. Prior to the approval, CBD and other conservation groups sent a letter to USFS Chief Randy Moore, urging him to reject the Ashley National Forest’s application. But Moore refused, stating, “By definition, a railway does not constitute a road under the Roadless Rule.”
In September 2022, CBD, Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment filed suit in D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Zukoski told Aspen Journalism at the time that the argument goes beyond whether a railroad is a road. “We raised many issues, including a failure of the Forest Service to consider the impact on roadless values,” he said. That case has not been briefed.
Legal documents show that the court on April 24 granted an abeyance request by the USFS, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition and the Uinta Basin Railway, temporarily suspending court proceedings until the Eagle County suit was decided. The original request shows that the USFS Record of Decision used portions of the same EIS and FWS BiOp that were used in the STB approval and that a decision in favor of Eagle County could make moot the USFS case.
On Aug. 18, the court requested that all parties involved in the suit file motions to govern future proceedings by Sept. 18. “The order suggests that the parties come up with a plan, or competing plans, for resolving the case in light of the decision in the Eagle County case,” said Zukoski. “So, it’s up to the parties to address that decision and seek further relief on the USFS decision. We’ll have to do that by Sept. 18.”
The outcome could also be compromised by the fact that federal approval no longer exists and that construction of the UBR cannot begin until all approvals are finalized. “One potential path forward is that the USFS voluntarily takes some action, such as withdrawing the ROD, and then one or more of the parties files a motion to dismiss the case,” said Zukoski. “Another potential outcome is the USFS believes that it can continue to litigate the case on the merits and we proceed to briefing.”
Meanwhile, Uinta Basin oil producers are upping their game. Utah’s output of crude oil has more than doubled in the past four years. Most of the state’s crude comes from Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Rich, Summit and Uintah counties — all within the Uinta Basin. Utah state Division of Natural Resources statistics show that Uinta Basin oil production has increased from a total of 31 million barrels per year in 2020 to 45.3 million in 2022. In the first five months of 2023, nearly 20.1 million barrels have come out of the ground.
Several loadout facilities currently transfer Uinta Basin oil from trucks to rail cars bound for California and the Gulf Coast. More and more tanker trucks are carrying crude over winding, two-lane highways from Myton to loadout facilities near Price, Helper, Ogden and Salt Lake City. Wildcat is one such facility near Price.
The Bureau of Land Management is considering a request from Coal Energy Group 2 to expand the capacity of the existing Wildcat Loadout Facility (WLF) to 100,000 bpd from 30,000 bpd. The project would add tank farm facilities, loading and unloading and other operations on about 13 acres of the existing right of way.
Zukoski said there are two theories about Wildcat. “One is that it’s a workaround. It’s a way to take advantage of high oil prices now,” he said. “The other is that it’s basically a proof-of-concept exercise.” The SCIC needs to show investors that there is a market for Uinta Basin crude. Mark Hemphill, who is with Rio Grande Pacific, in 2019 told the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining that a minimum of 130,000 bpd would need to come out of the basin to support the UBR. But without the UBR, the increase in production has been impossible due to caps on Salt Lake City refineries and no way to transport that much crude to other refineries. Wildcat could be a way out of the financial catch-22 that has been dogging the UBR. “If industry can show a significant boost in Uinta Basin oil production and proof that refineries will take that crude, they can take it to investors,” said Zukosky. “They’re in it to make money. That’s what this whole thing is about, and they’re just trying to figure out how to do it.”
The BLM needs to decide what kind of National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) analysis is best for the WLF expansion. ”Actions are analyzed in an EA [environmental assessment] if they are not categorically excluded, not covered in an existing environmental document, and not normally subject to an EIS,” Angela Hawkins, public affairs officer for Utah BLM, said in an email. “The EA is used to determine if the action would have significant impacts. If that is the case, then BLM would need to prepare an EIS.”
Glenwood Springs, Eagle County and conservation groups, including CBD, would prefer an EIS. Over the summer, they informed the BLM of their concerns in separate letters. CBD public lands senior campaigner Deeda Seed said in the conservation groups’ letter that the ruling in the Eagle County case “demonstrates that BLM has a duty to disclose all of the environmental harms the Wildcat Loadout Project would cause, and makes clear that BLM must weigh those harms in evaluating whether the project is in the public interest.” Zukosky told Aspen Journalism that WLF’s maximum capacity would be less than one-third of the UBR’s top capacity of 350,000 bpd. “So, presumably the upstream and downstream impacts would be reduced,” he said. ”But since they didn’t look at those [in the EIS or FWS BiOp), they have to go look at them for this project.”
Meanwhile, Colorado state Sen. Lisa Cutter (D-Senate District 20) told Aspen Journalism at the Aug. 26 rally that the state legislature has begun to take a look at rail-transport issues. She’s on the Interim Transportation Legislative Review Committee that has been meeting over the summer. One of the ideas they talked about was enhanced rail safety. But this, too, is in its initial phase.
“It’s not drafted yet, but we’re looking at several provisions,” she said. “Maybe training people along the route, training first responders, maybe having more people on board, more hazardous material specialists on board.” She figures if toxic materials are going to be transported by rail through the state, safeguards must be in place. “We’re not threatening Colorado, our forests, our water, our recreation, our hearts,” said Cutter, whose district includes Jefferson County and parts of Arvada and Lakewood. “I mean, this is the most important thing to me — the mountains, the forests and the way we live here in Colorado.”
Cutter is not sure why Colorado Gov. Jared Polis remains silent on the issue. Asked what she had to say to him about it, she replied that she knows he cares about the Colorado way of life. “Please lend your voice should the opportunity become available,” she said. Aspen Journalism has not yet received a statement from the governor’s office.
For now, citizens from Grand County to Glenwood Springs are celebrating the recent, hard-won success. But Godes urged Polis, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican who represents many of the communities that would be impacted by increased crude oil transport out of the Uinta Basin, to clarify their positions on the issue. Godes wonders if Boebert’s silence on the issue is a tacit objection to the UBR. “Congresswoman Boebert is not against it,” he said. “But she has not come out in support of this and that’s a victory.”
About 10 years ago, a very thick book written by a French economist became a surprising bestseller. It was called “Capital in the 21st Century.” In it, Thomas Piketty traces the history of income and wealth inequality over the past couple of hundred years.
The book’s insights struck a chord with people who felt a growing sense of economic inequality but didn’t have the data to back it up. I was one of them. It made me wonder, how much carbon pollution is being generated to create wealth for a small group of extremely rich households? Two kids, 10 years and a Ph.D. later, I finally have some answers.
In a new study, colleagues and I investigated U.S. households’ personal responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2019. We previously studied emissions tied to consumption – the stuff people buy. This time, we looked at emissions used in generating people’s incomes, including investment income.
If you’ve ever thought about how oil company CEOs and shareholders get rich at the expense of the climate, then you’ve been thinking in an “income-responsibility” way.
While it may seem intuitive that those getting rich from fossil fuels bear responsibility for the emissions, very little research has been done to quantify this. Recent efforts have started to look at emissions related to household wages in France, global consumption and investments of different income groups and billionaires’ investments. But no one has analyzed households across a whole country based on the emissions used to generate their full range of income, including wages, investments and retirement income, until now.
We linked a global data set of financial transactions and emissions to microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly labor force survey, which includes respondents’ job, demographics and income from 35 categories, including wages and investments. People’s wages we connected to the emission intensity of the industries that employ them, and we based the emissions intensity of investment income on a portfolio that mirrors the overall economy.
The results of our analysis were eye-opening, and they could have profound implications for producing more effective and fair climate policies in the future.
A view from the top 1%
Both our consumption- and income-based approaches reveal that the highest-earning households are responsible for much more than an equitable share of carbon emissions. What’s more surprising is how different the level of responsibility is depending on whether you look at consumption or income.
In the income-based approach, the share of national emissions coming from the top 1% of households is 15% to 17% of national emissions. That’s about 2.5 times higher than their consumer-related emissions, which is about 6%.
In the bottom 50% of households, however, the trend is the exact opposite: Their share of consumption-based national emissions is 31%, about two times larger than their income-based emissions of 14%.
Why is that?
A couple things are going on here. First, the lowest earning 50% of U.S. households spend all that they earn, and often more via social assistance or debt. The top income groups, on the other hand, are able to save and reinvest more of their income.
Second, while high-income households have very high overall spending and emissions, the carbon intensity – tons of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar – of their purchases is actually lower than that of low-income households. This is because low-income households spend a large share of their income on carbon-intensive basic necessities, like home heating and transportation. High-income households spend more of their income on less-carbon-intensive services, like financial services or higher education.
Implications for a carbon tax
Our detailed comparison could help change how governments think about carbon taxes.
Typically, a carbon tax is applied to fossil fuels when they enter the economy. Coal, oil and gas producers then pass this tax on to consumers. More than two dozen countries have a carbon tax, and U.S. policymakers have proposed adding one in recent years. The idea is that raising the price of these products by taxing them will get consumers to shift to cheaper and presumably less carbon-intensive alternatives.
But our studies show that this kind of tax would disproportionately fall on poorer Americans. Even if a universal dividend check was adopted, consumer-facing carbon taxes have no impact on saved income. Generating that income likely contributed to greenhouse gas emissions, but as long as the money is used to buy stocks rather than consumables, it is excluded from carbon taxes. So, this kind of carbon tax disproportionately affects people whose income goes primarily toward consumption.
A profit-focused carbon tax
What if, instead of focusing on consumption, carbon taxes addressed greenhouse gases as an outcome of profit generation?
The vast majority of American corporations operate under the principle of “shareholder primacy,” where they see a fiduciary duty to maximize profit for their investors. Products – and the greenhouse gases used to make them – are not created for the benefit of the consumer, but because the sale of those products will benefit the shareholders.
If carbon taxes were focused on shareholder income linked to greenhouse gas emissions rather than consumption, they could target those receiving the most economic benefits resulting from these emissions.
A couple of interesting things might result, particularly if the tax was set based on the carbon intensity of the company.
Corporate executives and boards would have incentive to reduce emissions to lower taxes for shareholders. Shareholders would have incentive, out of self-interest, to pressure companies to do so.
Investors would also have incentive to shift their portfolios to less-polluting companies to avoid the tax. Pension and private wealth fund managers would have incentive to divest from carbon-polluting investments out of a fiduciary duty to their clients. To keep the tax focused on large shareholders, I could see retirement accounts being excluded from the tax, or a minimum asset threshold before the tax applies. https://www.youtube.com/embed/CgA0UgSEDjI?wmode=transparent&start=0 Jared Starr explains the new study’s findings and the implications.
Revenue generated from the carbon tax could help fund adaptation and the transition to clean energy.
Instead of putting the responsibility for cutting emissions on consumers, maybe policies should more directly tie that responsibility to corporate executives, board members and investors who have the most knowledge and power over their industries. Based on our analysis of the consumption and income benefits produced by greenhouse gas emissions, I believe a shareholder-based carbon tax is worth exploring.
Dave Marston has written a profile of friend of Coyote Gulch Allen Best. Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):
Usually seen with a camera slung around his neck, Allen Best edits a one-man online journalism shop he calls Big Pivots. Its beat is the changes made necessary by our rapidly warming climate, and he calls it the most important story he’s ever covered.
Best is based in the Denver area, and his twice-a-month e-journal looks for the radical transitions in Colorado’s energy, water, and other urgent aspects of the state’s economy. These changes, he thinks, overwhelm the arrival of the telephone, rural electrification and even the internal combustion engine in terms of their impact.
Global warming, he declares, is “the biggest pivot of all.”
Whether you “believe” in climate change — and Best points out that at least one Colorado state legislator does not — there’s no denying that our entire planet is undergoing dramatic changes, including melting polar ice, ever-intensifying storms, and massive wildlife extinctions.
A major story that Best, 71, has relentlessly chronicled concerns Tri-State, a wholesale power supplier serving Colorado and three other states. Late to welcome renewable energy, it’s been weighed down with aging coal-fired power plants. Best closely followed how many of its 42 customers — rural electric cooperatives — have fought to withdraw from, or at least renegotiate, contracts that hampered their ability to buy cheaper power and use local renewable sources.
Best’s first newspaper job was at the Middle Park Times in Kremmling, a mountain town along the Colorado River. He wrote about logging, molybdenum mining and the many miners who came from eastern Europe. His prose wasn’t pretty, he says, but he got to hone his skills.
Because of his rural roots, Best is most comfortable hanging out in farm towns and backwaters, places where he can listen to stories and try to get a feel for what Best calls the “rest of Colorado.” Pueblo, population 110,000 in southern Colorado, is a gritty town he likes a lot.
Pueblo has been forced to pivot away from a creaky, coal-fired power plant that created well-paying jobs. Now, the local steel mill relies on solar power instead, and the town also hosts a factory that makes wind turbine towers. He’s written stories about these radical changes as well as the possibility that Russian oligarchs are involved in the city’s steel mill.
Best also vacuums up stories from towns like Craig in northwestern Colorado, home to soon-to-be-closed coal plants. He says he finds Farmington, New Mexico, fascinating because it has electric transmission lines idling from shuttered coal power plants.
His Big Pivots may only have 1,091 subscribers, but story tips and encouragement come from some of his readers who hold jobs with clout. His feature “There Will Be Fire: Colorado arrives at the dawn of megafires” brought comments from climate scientist Michael Mann and Amory Lovins, legendary co-founder of The Rocky Mountain Institute.
“After a lifetime in journalism, his writing has become more lyrical as he’s become more passionate,” says Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Ski Company. “Yet he’s also completely unknown despite the quality of his work.”
Among utility insiders, and outsiders like myself, however, Best is a must-read.
His biggest donor has been Sam R. Walton’s Catena Foundation — a $29,000 grant. Typically, supporters of his nonprofit give Big Pivots $25 or $50.
Living in Denver allows him to be close to the state’s shot callers, but often, his most compelling stories come from the rural fringe. One such place is the little-known Republican River, whose headwaters emerge somewhere on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. That’s also where Best’s grandfather was born in an earthen “soddie.”
Best grew up in eastern Colorado and knows the treeless area well. He’s written half a dozen stories about the wrung-out Republican River that delivers water to neighboring Kansas. He also sees the Eastern Plains as a great story about the energy transition. With huge transmission lines under construction by the utility giant Xcel Energy, the project will feed renewable power from wind and solar to the cities of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.
Best admits he’s sometimes discouraged by his small readership — it can feel like he’s speaking to an empty auditorium, he says. He adds, though, that while “I may be a tiny player in Colorado journalism, I’m still a player.”
He’s also modest. With every trip down Colorado’s back roads to dig up stories, Best says he’s humbled by what he doesn’t know. “Just when I think I understand something, I get slapped up the side of the head.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango, Colorado.
Elected officials in Glenwood Springs are quite certain of two realities facing the largest town between the Denver metro area and Grand Junction on Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line: Freight rail, especially for fossil fuels, is king. And climate change is an everyday reality.
“Glenwood Springs is the poster child for climate change,” said former Glenwood mayor and current City Council member Jonathan Godes, an outspoken opponent of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway oil-train project in Utah. “Something that contributes 53 million metric tons of carbon a year … is absolutely something that our community and every other mountain community in Colorado that relies on it not being 100 degrees every day in the summer or 50 degrees in the winter should be fighting on its face.”
But the fact that the new 88-mile railroad in northeast Utah would send up to five fully loaded, two-mile-long oil trains a day through Glenwood and Denver on their way to Gulf Coast refineries has prompted the Colorado River city of 10,300 in Garfield County to support Eagle County’s litigation opposing federal approval of the project, and, more recently, to fire off letters to federal officials opposing tax-exempt funding for the railway and a Utah loading facility expansion.
On Aug. 3, Glenwood Mayor Ingrid Wussow wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urging him to “deny issuing funding through tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds (PABs) to the Uinta Basin Railway Project. The approval of and funding for the Railway carries grave implications for both the environmental health and economic stability of Glenwood Springs and other communities along the Railway’s corridor.”
Wussow added she’ll be in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18 to 20, with a delegation from the city and requested a meeting with Buttigieg to discuss the oil train project, which would travel along the climate-change endangered Colorado River for approximately 100 miles. In a separate letter dated Aug. 7, Wussow wrote Greg Sheehan, Utah state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to request a full environmental impact statement for an oil truck and rail loading facility on BLM land in Utah rather than a less-intensive environmental assessment.
“Glenwood Springs is a world destination for outdoor recreation and the home for irreplaceable natural wonders,” Wussow wrote. “Given the magnitude of the Railway project, these risks to the natural environment are significant.”
Godes can doom scroll through a long list of climate calamities in Glenwood Springs he says are directly attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, rising temperatures and increased aridification of Colorado. He points to the Storm King Fire in 1994 that killed 14 wildland firefighters, the Coal Seam Fire in 2002 that burned down 29 Glenwood structures, and the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 that scoured Glenwood Canyon and shut down Interstate 70 for two weeks. The following summer, a 500-year rain event hit the burn scar and dumped mud and rock on the highway and train tracks below, shutting down I-70 for another two weeks.
“So climate change, it’s not just, ‘It’s hot in America right now,’” Godes said. “Climate change is something that threatens us in Glenwood Springs on a year-in and year-out basis. It’s ever-present. It is where our insurance rates are determined. It is where we allow houses to be built. It is where streets are contemplated for escape routes.”
One might think the environmental benefits of trains — up to 75% lower greenhouse gas emissions than moving freight by truck, according to the rail industry — would ease some of Glenwood’s concerns, but Godes argues that depends on the freight. The Uinta Basin oil should stay in the ground to begin with, he argues, while also scoffing at the notion of enhanced passenger trains as a potential tourism-boon side effect of increased rail traffic overall. [ed. emphasis mine]
“My mom comes from Iowa every year on the California’s Zephyr,” Godes said of the daily Amtrak service through Glenwood to Chicago and San Francisco. “She gets on near Burlington, Iowa, and then she comes out here, and it’s always four or five hours late. And most of the time it’s because somewhere in Colorado, and most likely between Denver and here, there was a train with a higher priority, whether it was oil or coal or other materials or commodities.”
“I’d love to have some kind of passenger rail like the California Zephyr be able to service the tourism industry to get tourists from the Front Range to Vail, from Pueblo, Colorado Springs, over Tennessee Pass,” Godes said. “That’s all fine and dandy. It’s a really nice, fun idea that could be helpful to our tourist economy. But if it comes with the risk of opening the door, even a crack, to regular freight rail on the Tennessee line, I think that is going to be incredibly — and it doesn’t affect me because we get that freight rail through Glenwood no matter what — but I think that is incredibly problematic for Eagle County, Chaffee County, for all the communities on that line.”
Fears about derailments
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry, whose government is the lead litigant in efforts to block the Uinta Basin project from sending oil trains through a corner of the county, was initially open to passenger rail but very leery of freight returning to the Tennessee Pass tracks along the Eagle River, which bisects the county before flowing into the Colorado River.
“If there’s going to be cargo trains and no passengers, then all we have is the impacts of noise and train crossings to deal with again,” Chandler-Henry said in 2020. “But if we also have people moving on those lines, I think this could be a great benefit to us.” A small segment of Union Pacific’s Tennessee Pass Line is currently leased by the scenic Royal Gorge Route.
Beginning in the 1950s, the United States government, at the behest of the auto and aviation industries, prioritized interstate highways and airports over passenger rail, relegating rail to primarily freight lines with little tolerance for passenger service. In 1997, the only other rail line through the Colorado Rockies — the Tennessee Pass Line — was mothballed in favor of the Central Corridor. But it had not seen passengers on its tracks since 1964.
Terry Armistead, the Minturn mayor pro tem and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, does not speak for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she does not want to see the revival of either freight or passenger service in the former rail and mining town off the back side of Vail Mountain.
“We’re not Europe. I just was there riding the trains, and it was incredible. But this mountain corridor is really problematic for commuter traffic and any kind of freight traffic,” Armistead said. “I have real fears about derailments, and Minturn is finally recovering from the disaster that was the Eagle Mine, with the river running orange. We can’t afford to do that again.”
“People have this romantic idea of it, but they don’t really quite understand the logistics of this rail line. I don’t think it will work for commuter traffic,” even for people who live in Leadville and work in Vail, Armistead said. “If you drove the Leadville 100 at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. back up to Leadville, you’d understand. People aren’t giving up their cars to spend an extra hour on a train every day. I mean, people are not going to do it. They don’t have the time.”
Sal Pace, a former Pueblo County commissioner and state lawmaker who serves on the Front Range Passenger Rail board of directors, said in a previous interview that the primary focus of FRPR is passenger rail along the Front Range between Pueblo and Fort Collins, where more than 80% of the state’s population is located.
But Pace acknowledges his group has been, to a much lesser degree, exploring connectivity to the west, including the passenger trains already using Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through the Moffat Tunnel, but also by connecting to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which cuts through southeast Colorado on its route between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“We’re also going to explore other potential opportunities,” Pace said of currently active segments of the Tennessee Pass Line. “There’s already potential for connectivity from Pueblo to the Royal Gorge Route and it’s not out of the question that individuals could purchase a train ticket from Denver to the Royal Gorge after we build out Front Range Passenger Rail, where in Pueblo they’d change trains. The infrastructure is there, and it’s something that needs to be examined and explored.”
Colorado is starting another chapter in what could be a future history book, “How We Decarbonized our Economy.”
In that book, electricity will be the easy part, at least the storyline through 80% to 90% reduction in emissions. That chapter is incomplete. We may not figure out 100% emissions-free electricity on a broad scale for a couple more decades.
This new chapter is about tamping down emissions associated with buildings. This plot line will be more complicated. Instead of dealing with a dozen or so coal plants, we have hundreds of thousands of buildings in Colorado, maybe more. Most burn natural gas and propane to heat space and water.
I would start this chapter on August 1. Appropriately, that’s Colorado Day. It’s also the day that Xcel Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities will deliver the nation’s very first clean-heat plans to state regulators.
Those clean heat plans, required by a 2021 law, will tell state agencies how they intend to reduce emissions from the heat they sell to customers. The targets are 4% by 2025 and 22% by 2030.
Wishing I had a sex scandal to weave into this chapter or at least something lurid, maybe a conspiracy or two. Think Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.”
Arguments between utilities and environmental advocates remain polite. Both sides recognize the need for new technologies. The disagreements lie in how best to invest resources that will pay off over time.
The environmental groups see great promise in electrification, particularly the use of air-source heat pumps. Heat pumps milk the heat out of even very cold air (or, in summer, coolness from hot air).
Good enough for prime time? I know of people in Avon, Fraser, and Gunnison who say heat-pumps deliver even on the coldest winter days.
Xcel says that heat pumps have a role—but cautions that cold temperatures and higher elevations impair their performance by about 10% as compared to testing in coastal areas. They will need backup gas heat or electric resistance heating. After two winters of testing at the National Research Energy Laboratory in Golden, the testing of heat pumps will move to construction trailers set up in Leadville, Colorado’s Two-Mile City next winter.
Xcel also frets about adding too much demand, too quickly, to the electrical grid.
Another, perhaps sharper argument has to do with other fuels that would allow Xcel to use its existing gas pipelines. Xcel and other gas utilities have put out a request for renewable natural gas, such as could be harvested from dairies. Xcel also plans to create hydrogen from renewable resources, blending it with natural gas. It plans a demonstration project using existing infrastructure in Adams County, northeast of Denver.
Jeff Lyng, Xcel Energy’s vice president for energy and sustainability policy, talks about the need for a “spectrum of different approaches.” It is far too early, Lyng told me, to take any possible technology off the table.
In a 53-page analysis, Western Resource Advocates sees a greater role for weatherization and other measures to reduce demand for gas. It sees renewable gas, in particular, but also hydrogen, as more costly and slowing the broad market transformation that is necessary.
“I think there’s a real tension that came out between different visions of a low-carbon future when it comes to the gas system,” Meera Fickling, an economist with WRA, told me.
We already have a huge ecosystem of energy, a huge investment in natural gas. Just think of all the natural gas lines buried under our streets. No wonder this transition will be difficult.
“It’s more difficult because everything you do in the gas sector now has a spillover effect in the electric sector,” says Jeff Ackermann, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. “Each of these sectors moves in less than smooth, elegant steps. We don’t want people to fall off one and onto the other and get lost in the transition. There has to be sufficient energy of whatever type.”
Getting back to the book chapter. Colorado has nibbled around the edges of how to end emissions from buildings. With these proceedings, Colorado is moving headlong into this very difficult challenge. The foreplay is done. It’s action time.
Xcel talks about a decades-long transition and stresses the need to understand “realistic limitations in regard to both technologies and circumstances.”
Keep in mind, 25 years ago, it had little faith in wind and even less in solar.
Do you see a role for Jack Nicholson in hearings and so forth during the next year? I don’t. Even so, it promises to be a most interesting story.
The month of July 2023 just ended. It is in the record books as the hottest month in the history of the world while humans have been around; or at least in the past 120,000 years or so. It will obliterate the record for the hottest recorded month, upping the record by a formerly unheard of potential 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, according to a report from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization and the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, it was hotter this past month than anything we’ve seen in the last 80 or so years. But then again, humans only have data for about 100 years or so; an era considered the “sweet spot” in planet livability for humans.
This past month is the latest in a string of records that have made the past nine years the hottest in the history of our planet. Anyone who can read data knows we’re in trouble. On July 27, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made an urgent speech in New York warning that the only surprise is the speed of climate change, saying “Climate change is here, it is terrifying and it is just the beginning.” He declared that “the era of global boiling has arrived.” Add to the extreme heat, the extreme weather that feels as if it is all happening at once, and we could be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on. The answer is that ‘on earth”, we humans continue to screw it up, pumping billions of particles of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere; fueling an accelerating climate crisis.
In the ultimate irony, as the temperatures have surged across the affluent parts of the world, people there are cranking up their air conditioning — creating an endless cycle of climate disruption.
KARACHI: The month of July has rewritten the record books as it stands out as the hottest month ever on a global scale. Unrelenting heat waves have sizzled large swathes of Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia, leaving countries grappling with severe weather conditions. From Puerto Rico to Pakistan, Iran, India, and all the way to Siberia, climate records have not just been shattered, but smashed.
In June more than 4.7 million hectares of land in Canada were scorched by wildfires, painting skylines an eerie shade of orange over Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto, where a dense haze obstructed views of the CN Tower, a 553.3-meter-tall iconic landmark that dominates the downtown skyline of one of Canada’s largest cities. However, this was not just Canada’s problem; billowing smoke traveled across continents, reaching as far as Europe, serving as a wake-up call for everyone trying to ignore the climate crisis and its far-reaching consequences.
A month later, all efforts were concentrated on dousing blazes raging on the Greek islands of Evia and Corfu, in addition to Rhodes, where wind-whipped infernos forced the government to evacuate more than 19,000 tourists and residents. The scars left behind by these fires are all too visible. Many towns in Greece were left with a severe shortage of water because of the damage to their resources. According to the country’s weather Institute, Greece faced the longest heatwave in its history, with its hottest July weekend in 50 years, with the mercury rising in some parts up to 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
To leading scientists, none of this comes as a surprise. The likely trajectory of climate change, given the current global performance on emissions reduction, has been spelled out repeatedly by climate experts, and their cries have been falling on deaf ears for quite some time. While warming caused by greenhouse gases is not unexpected, seeing some of the climate records being broken was not anticipated. The global average temperature has been rising, and in July this year, it broke through 17 degrees for the first time. Furthermore, the record for the hottest day on earth fell not just once but three times in a week. And it is not just the land that is warmer; the oceans, which take up most of the world’s heat, have also witnessed unprecedented temperatures.
Uinta Basin rail project in Utah could result in dramatic increase of hazardous material on Union Pacific line through Colorado
State officials since last spring have quietly been reaching out to communities along Colorado’s main east-west rail line to gauge local sentiment as the state negotiates a new lease with rail giant Union Pacific, which pays $12,000 a year to send trains through the state-owned Moffat Tunnel.
Union Pacific’s 99-year lease to use the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel expires Jan. 6, 2025, and Kate McIntire, a regional manager for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has been tasked with “developing our list of concerns, potential opportunities, roles, responsibilities, and ways stakeholders would like to ensure they’re involved in the negotiation.”
McIntire, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the recently formed Public-Private Partnership (P3) Collaboration Unit of the Department of Personnel and Administration, will be ramping up outreach this fall and through 2024.
McIntire expects to hear more input from counties and towns along Union Pacific’s Central Corridor rail line between Denver and Grand Junction about the controversial 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway proposal in Utah. The project would send up to 350,000 additional barrels of oil per day along the route, which travels for about 100 miles along the headwaters of the endangered Colorado River.
“Yes, some of those comments came up and were addressed more directly to Union Pacific,” McIntire said of meetings the state has already held with Denver Water, which uses the Moffat Tunnel’s original 1922 bore hole for transmountain water diversions; Adams, Gilpin, Grand and Jefferson counties; and the cities of Arvada, Golden, Winter Park, Fraser and Kremmling.
Asked to characterize some of the comments she’s hearing on an oil train project that’s already been approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and on the high end would more than quintuple the amount of freight rail traffic on Colorado’s Western Slope, McIntire offered this:
“I’ll just kind of draw back on the fact that we’re really early in a complex process with legal considerations, roles, responsibilities, and potential opportunities that may or may not be tied to the lease,” McIntire said. “But we’re definitely aware of those concerns, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to ensure stakeholders are engaged.”
The city of Denver estimates the Uinta Basin project will quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through the metro area as up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day chug east through the Moffat Tunnel at the base of the city-owned Winter Park Resort ski area and then make their way down through Denver and toward Gulf Coast refineries.
Eagle County, where the Central Corridor rail line separates from Interstate 70 at Dotsero and follows the Colorado River through remote canyons northeast into Grand County, is suing the Surface Transportation Board to overturn or at least more comprehensively consider the down-the-line impacts of Uinta Basin trains from inevitable derailments, spills, wildfires and climate change.
Environmental groups have also filed suit, and Eagle County has the support of Glenwood Springs, Minturn, Avon, Red Cliff, Vail, Routt, Boulder, Chaffee, Lake and Pitkin counties.
Seeking more state support
“Still conspicuously absent in these efforts is the state of Colorado,” Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu wrote in an email. “Anything the state can do to get off the sidelines and participate would be appreciated. We would encourage the state to use all tools at its disposal, including any Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations, to protect every Colorado community along the rail corridor that will be forced to face very real risks of derailment, spills, water contamination and fires.”
Asked to characterize the comments the Nebraska-based railroad company is hearing on the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it’s appropriate for Colorado to consider opposition to the Utah project in its Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver responded: “Union Pacific is aware the Moffat Tunnel lease expires in 2025, and negotiations are underway,” Tysver wrote in an email. “Union Pacific is required by federal law to transport hazardous commodities that Americans use daily, including crude oil, fertilizer and chlorine, and 99.9% of the hazardous material shipped by rail reaches its destination safely.”
Union Pacific chief safety officer Rod Doerr on Monday told the Colorado General Assembly’s Transportation Legislation Review Committee the company hasn’t specifically analyzed the risks of increased oil-train traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway project. The committee will meet again in August to consider potential legislation in the next session that starts in January.
Since the General Assembly first created the Moffat Tunnel Improvement District for taxing purposes in 1922 and still owns the tunnel and administers it via DOLA, the terms of the lease might logically be a topic of discussion.
“It’s crazy that Union Pacific pays Colorado far less rent for the Moffat Tunnel than the median price of a studio apartment in Denver,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to stop the oil trains. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for (Gov. Jared Polis) to protect Colorado communities, our water, our rivers, and our public lands from hazardous materials spills from trains that travel through the Moffat Tunnel.”
Eagle County’s Treu, who said he’s yet to hear from the state on the Moffat lease, would like to see a lot more pushback from the state against federal approvals for the Utah oil-train partnership backing the project, which is still seeking funding via tax-exempt U.S. Department of Transportation bonds.
“We asked the (Colorado Attorney General’s) office to participate as an amicus party in our litigation against the Surface Transportation Board,” Treu said. “The state declined, leaving us to fend for ourselves. That response was surprising considering the crux of this litigation is STB’s complete failure to consider the downline impacts to the sensitive Colorado River corridor through all of Colorado. This isn’t just an Eagle County issue.”
The office of Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser responded with the following statement:
“As the Attorney General said in his letter to the federal government, the Uinta Basin Railway proposal is as risky to our environment and communities as it is unsupported by Coloradans. It should not move forward. And it most definitely should not receive federal subsidies. The Attorney General’s Office has visited with advocates on the risks the UBR poses to our state, has collaborated with Colorado’s congressional delegation on options to prevent construction, and is committed to visiting with any group with ideas on how to protect Colorado’s environment from this risky venture.”
In various forms, both Colorado U.S. senators — Democrats Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper — and a majority of the state’s U.S. House delegation, particularly Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, have reached out to a variety of federal agencies to oppose the Uinta Basin Railway.
Jonathan Godes, a Glenwood Springs City Council member and former mayor whose term ended in April, said he has yet to be contacted by DOLA on the Moffat Tunnel lease, but he looks forward to hearing from McIntire, who is a former Grand County manager and former acting Jefferson County manager.
Godes says he doesn’t yet have enough information to comment on the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiations or possibly using them to restrict hazardous material transport through Glenwood.
“But I will say that I’m really glad that both of our senators, Congressman Neguse, commissioners in Eagle County, Grand County, and leaders in dozens of municipalities all agree that this is objectively and definitively a horrible idea for our communities, for the Western Slope, the mountain communities in the state of Colorado,” Godes said. “I’m looking forward to when the state decides to join up with our congressional delegation and our local leaders in solidarity against this abomination.”
Tennessee Pass Line
Terry Armistead, a Minturn Town Council member, mayor pro tem, and a member of the Minturn Railroad Committee, made it clear she was not speaking for the whole committee or the entire town council, but she acknowledged she has spoken to McIntire.
“In regards to the Tennessee Pass Line, I heard nothing in that short meeting of any substance, unfortunately. It was kind of anticlimactic,” Armistead said of a long-dormant Union Pacific rail line that connects to the Central Corridor at Dotsero and heads southeast along the Eagle and Arkansas rivers to Pueblo — a route that if revived would avoid the Moffat Tunnel and Denver altogether.
That is one of the fears Eagle County expressed in its litigation — added pressure to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line through Avon and the former mining and railroad towns of Minturn and Red Cliff off the backside of Vail Mountain.
Armistead said she started calling Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, who used to be mayor and still lives in Minturn, four years ago when the TPL revival idea first came up, telling him, “Minturn is too small a voice in the room, and we can’t do this alone; the county needs to speak for all of us.” She supports the county’s position regarding the Moffat Tunnel lease and would like to see Union Pacific be allowed to formally abandon the TPL for an outdoor recreation trail.
“I’m not going to mince words. I would love to see (the Tennessee Pass) rail ripped up,” Armistead said of the line that’s been dormant since 1997 — the year after a Union Pacific and Southern Pacific merger. “I would love to see them sell us, or sell somebody the land, and develop the rail yard in Minturn. I’ve been saying it for years.”
DOLA’s McIntire could not say if the status of the Tennessee Pass Line will be at all considered in the Moffat Tunnel lease negotiation, since it’s a separate and active Union Pacific rail line.
“We’re still very early in this process and we really haven’t determined whether that’s a separate issue or not,” McIntire said. “I don’t want to come out and say that that’s not going to be something that we’re going to address.”
For Union Pacific, which did try to formally abandon the TPL in the late 1990s after the merger — only to be snubbed on that front by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board — it’s somewhat of a moot point.
“We have no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass,” Union Pacific’s Tysver said.
A scorcher has settled over the entire Southwestern United States, with highs expected to hit the triple digits for several days in a row from Bakersfield to Las Vegas to Grand Junction. Phoenicians will be doing the Summer Solstice Swelter during that long day and short night—the minimum temperature is sticking at just below 90 degrees, to give even those used-to-be-cool predawn hours an ovenlike ambience.
That type of heat can cause the human body to go haywire, short-circuiting the renal system, causing the brain to swell, blood pressure to drop, heart-rate to increase, blood clots to form. Last year this heat-caused cascading failure proved fatal for more than 300 people in greater Phoenix.
Now, the electricity grid is not a living organism, but it can behave like one in a variety of ways. And just as excessive heat can ripple through the vital organs of the body, so too can it trigger chain reactions and feedback loops in the power system that keeps society churning along. Which is why during heatwaves like this one—that threatens to drag on in varying degrees of intensity throughout the summer—the power often goes out, right when folks need it most to keep their homes habitable.
To continue with the body metaphor, the grid has a heart, made up of all of the generators such as power plants and wind farms and so forth; a circulation system made up of arteries (high voltage transmission lines) and capillaries (distribution lines that carry power to your home or business); and organs, or the electricity consumers. The supply of power generated must always be equal to the collective demand. If demand kicks up, then the grid operators (the brain) have to increase the output of the “heart” accordingly.
In the West, we get our power from the Western Interconnect, which is actually broken up into about 38 separate grids, each with its own heart and brain and organs.
On a summer’s afternoon, as the temperature rises, thermostats signal air-conditioners to start running in order to keep homes and businesses comfortable and—in some cases—survivable. Cooling space requires a lot of energy. A 2013 study found that during extreme heat events, about half of all electricity use goes toward space-cooling of some sort. So when some 18 million residential AC units, plus all of the commercial units, kick in across the West, it increases the demand—or load—on the respective electricity grids significantly.
Some of that sudden increase in demand is offset by a corresponding uptick in solar generation, if available on the grid, and wind power—assuming the wind’s blowing at the time. The problem is, solar generation tends to peak in the early afternoon, but temperatures—and therefore AC-related demand—peak a few hours later. Grid operators need to turn to other resources in order to match that late afternoon peak.
Probably the best source of “peaking” power is a hydroelectric dam, which is essentially a big battery in that it stores energy in the form of water that can be run through turbines to generate power at the flip of a switch. Except, well, in the hottest, driest years, just when that hydropower is most needed, hydroelectricity is in short supply thanks to shrinking reservoirs.
Meanwhile, the nuclear reactors that are currently in service can’t be ramped up or down to “follow the load.” The same goes for coal power plants. Still, those sources provide important baseload, a fairly constant stream of power. Yet many thermal power plants run less efficiently when the ambient temperature is high, and nearly all of them—whether nuclear, coal, or natural gas (steam, not turbine)—need billions of gallons of water per year for cooling and steam-generation purposes, another problem during drought. And the warmer that water is, the less effective it is: Nuclear plants have been forced to shut down because the cooling water is too warm.
Since grid operators have no control over wind or solar generation and there aren’t enough batteries online yet, they have little choice but to turn to natural gas peaker plants, which can be cranked up quickly but are also expensive to run and emit more pollutants than conventional plants, including greenhouse gases that warm the climate and exacerbate heat waves and drought. Sometimes even that’s not enough to meet demand and grid operators must “shed load,” or do rolling power outages.
And that smoke? It’s not so good for solar power: Smoke from wildfires was so thick last summer that it blotted out the sun and diminished solar power generation in California, which meant grid operators had to scramble to make up for the loss.
Even when the power does make it to the air conditioners without triggering disasters, troubles remain. Air conditioners work by pulling heat from indoors and blowing it outside, as anyone who has walked past an AC vent when its running has experienced. Multiply that phenomenon by hundreds of thousands and you’ll get an increase in nighttime temperatures and exacerbate the urban heat island effect, according to a study by an Arizona State University researcher. Not only are the emissions from generating power to run the air conditioners heating things up, but so is running the air conditioners, themselves.
And heat doesn’t affect everyone equally. Various studies have found that heat disproportionately affects people of color and those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. That’s in part because those neighborhoods don’t have as many trees or green-spaces, which mitigate the urban heat islands. And it’s also due to the fact that they are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning equipment or the electricity to run them. It’s just another way in which wealth inequality ripples throughout society, creating health inequality, quality of life inequality, opportunity inequality, and so forth.
The first priority is to help the people who are most affected by the heat and the resulting grid failures, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions so as not to exacerbate the heat even further. And we need to pursue solutions for the grid, by installing more batteries and energy storage, breaking down the divisions between the balkanized grids in the West, expanding transmission in some places to enable moving clean power across big distances so that solar and wind from the Interior can match up with California’s demand peak, while also focusing on micro-grids for fire-prone areas and rooftop solar paired with batteries—for everyone, not just the wealthy—so that the grid becomes somewhat redundant.
It’s a massive challenge, but we have to take it on before it’s too late.
And on the lighter side, please witness comedian Blair Erskine’s impression of a spokesperson for the Texas grid:
A few months ago, the Bureau of Land Management quietly proposed a new rule designed to “guide the balanced management of public lands,” putting conservation on a par with other uses, such as grazing, oil and gas drilling and mining. Among other things, it would allow individuals or entities to lease public parcels for conservation purposes, including habitat restoration or invasive species eradication.
To many observers, myself included, the proposal seemed unremarkable, basically a clarification of the multiple-use framework mandated by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Nothing about it was particularly earth-shattering or new. Environmental groups mostly supported it, albeit tepidly, though some thought that the conservation lease idea might do more harm than good. Initially, the response from the extractive industries and their enablers in Washington, D.C., was similarly subdued — with one or two exceptions.
But then, a few weeks after the new rule was unveiled, a backlash erupted for reasons I cannot fathom. It started out when Montana Republican Rep. Matt Rosedale, in a moment of rare candor, admitted that he didn’t think conservation was “supposed to be on equal footing” with extractive uses. Soon, it became a raging rhetorical inferno, with the misinformation conflagration climaxing at a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee sh*%show … er, hearing on June 15. The Republican-led committee — whose motto is “putting conservatives back into conservation” — wanted to discuss a bill that would block a rule aimed at putting conservation back into public-land management.
Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem was one of the star witnesses, despite the fact that her state contains just .12% of the lands to which the rule would apply. The rule, she said, would be “devastating” for her state, because it would create “a mechanism like a conservation lease that could be bought by third parties, not even necessarily by people in our own country, and give them access and authority over these lands. It’s dangerous.”
Noem did not explain what she meant by third parties — or first or second parties for that matter — nor why that theoretical third party would be any more dangerous than the first two. She is also apparently unaware of the fact that foreign-owned corporations are regularly given access to and authority over the nation’s public lands — including the ability to rip them apart for profit — in the form of the mining claims and coal, oil and natural gas leases that she and other Republicans enthusiastically support.
While Noem may be dismissed as merely ill-informed, the same cannot be said of her co-witness, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, also a Republican. Gordon opened his testimony by declaring that he was a conservationist, which was, at least at some point, perfectly true: He once served as treasurer for the Sierra Club and wrote that oil and gas drilling had turned the once “pleasant little Western town” in which he lived into “the place that stinks on the way to Casper”. (Fun fact: He also served on the board of High Country News in the early 2000s.)
But times — and Gordon — have clearly changed: The governor then went on to deride conservation, claiming that the proposed rule would allow environmentalists to put conservation leases on active grazing allotments and force all the cattle off the land. This is blatantly false, and if Gordon had read the actual text of the rule, he surely would have known it. The draft rule may contain some ambiguity, but it is clear about one thing: It cannot “disturb existing authorizations (or) valid existing rights.” Which is to say: The new rule cannot be used to boot cows, pumpjacks, mines, wind turbines or any other existing uses off public land.
“Everything this administration does is about climate,” Gordon railed, veering away from the topic at hand, complaining that President Biden and company are “holding back the fossil fuel industry” and that “we can’t get a lease out of this administration. We can’t get a permit out of this administration.”
This is also untrue. In fact, on June 28 and 29, oil and gas companies had the opportunity to log into EnergyNet and bid on 116 oil and gas leases covering 127,000 acres of public land in Gordon’s own state, adding to the more than 7.5 million acres of leases already in effect in Wyoming. Meanwhile, the BLM has handed more than 300 drilling permits to operators in Wyoming this year alone, bringing the total of approved and available-to-drill permits in the state to nearly 2,000.
As the hearing dragged on, it became clear that the Republicans either do not understand the proposed rule or — more likely — do not want to understand it, because understanding it would force them to acknowledge that it’s not going to impede fossil fuel development or livestock operations or any other extractive development. And if they were to acknowledge that, they’d have no reason to be outraged and, therefore, no reason to exist. [ed. emphasis mine]
Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the HCN HQ’s home district in western Colorado, grilled BLM Deputy Director Nada Wolff Culver about whether the rule would impact existing grazing, impede forest management or “lock up more land.”
“No, it will not,” Culver said, adding that the agency simply was “implementing the Federal Land Management and Policy Act.” Boebert then demanded that Culver put that in writing. Thing is, it already is written in the 22-page proposed rule published in the Federal Register nearly three months ago. Had any of these folks bothered to read it, perhaps all this brouhaha wouldn’t have been necessary.
It went on, and on, and on like this. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., used his time to spread climate-denial pseudoscience on carbon dioxide. Utah’s Rep. John Curtis brought out the old “absentee landlord” trope about Eastern bureaucrats making decisions that affect the West, willfully ignoring the fact that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and, as she puts it, a 35th generation New Mexican. Immediately thereafter, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., slammed the proposed BLM rule for all the restrictions it allegedly would bring. His state, Minnesota, has exactly zero acres of BLM land.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, of New Mexico (13.5 million acres of BLM land), was born in Farmington, where her dad worked in the oil fields and her mom at the San Juan power plant. The Democrat assured her colleagues the rule would not impede fossil fuel development or grazing. “I support this rule (because) it will help us manage our lands in a more balanced way,” she said. “I find it very upsetting when I see the resources of this body of Congress … being used to put forward narratives and misinformation that … is intended to scare the American people. Much of what I’ve heard here today is just not true.”
The Interior Department has extended the public comment period on the rule until July 5. So you’ve still got a few days to weigh in.
In related news:
There are conflicting views regarding how the proposed Public Lands Rule would affect renewable energy development.
The Los Angeles Times’ Sammy Roth reported that some wind and solar industry officials worry the rule could give environmentalists and local BLM officials more tools to block future utility-scale solar or wind development. They point specifically to a provision that would extend rangeland health standards to all public lands and to another that would make it easier for agency offices to establish areas of critical environmental concern, or ACECs.
But Wolff Culver told Roth that neither provision is likely to hamper renewable energy projects. ACECs are already widely used by the agency; the new rule would merely consolidate, clarify and codify the procedure for establishing them. As for the rangeland health standards? The agency has never done a decent job of enforcing these standards for livestock operators, so why would it suddenly start using them to block solar projects?
The Center for American Progress said the new rule would actually encourage clean energy development. The proposed conservation leases, Drew McConville wrote, provide a potential framework for developers to do “compensatory mitigation,” or offset the impacts of a solar or wind facility by doing restoration work on another parcel of public land.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pulling out all the stops to facilitate clean energy development in other ways:
Haaland traveled to Rawlins, Wyoming, last week to help celebrate the groundbreaking of the TransWest Express transmission project. The high-voltage line will carry wind power from the massive Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind projects outside Rawlins westward to the California grid. Permitting for the project took 15 years.
The BLM proposed yet another rule, this one aiming to promote utility-scale solar and wind development on public land by reducing rents and fees significantly and streamlining right-of-way permitting.
But one place will remain off-limits to “green metal” mining: An ancient dry lakebed in Nevada. The Associated Press reported that mining companies had targeted the site for its abundant lithium, which is used in batteries for EVs, energy storage and other applications. But it turns out the site is even more valuable to NASA, and for a very different purpose: satellite calibration. And so the BLM withdrew the 36-square-mile site from mineral exploration. The agency has not extended the same courtesy to the tribal nations seeking to block the Thacker Pass lithium mine from destroying a sacred site.
City Council kills rail-safety ordinance ahead of Uinta Basin Railway’s potential quadrupling of hazmat traffic
As trains heading east from the Moffat Tunnel take one last sharp turn along a ridge near Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder County, the scenery changes abruptly.
After traveling hundreds of miles east through narrow river gorges and rugged alpine forests, the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through Colorado emerges at last onto a high ridgeline offering dramatic views of the Denver metro area and the vast, empty Eastern Plains stretching out into the distance.
Over the next 10 miles, the railroad drops roughly 1,000 feet in elevation, meaning this section of track approaches a 2% grade, near the practical limit for major freight lines. To accomplish the steep descent, trains complete a looping series of turns at a landmark known as Big Ten Curve, where a line of disused cement-filled rail cars buried to one side of the track serves as a windbreak, placed there in the 1960s after repeated derailments caused by high winds blowing across the foothills.
With one final turn, trains leave the mountains behind for good, passing just south of the site of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant and bearing down directly into the heart of Colorado’s largest population center.
Within just a few years, this could be the route traveled daily by as many as five fully-loaded, two-mile-long crude oil trains from the Uinta Basin in eastern Utah. The additional traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, backed by a public-private partnership and granted key approvals by President Joe Biden’s administration, could quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through Denver, city officials estimate.
This week, three Denver-area members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, Jason Crow and Brittany Pettersen, all Democrats — joined a chorus of Colorado elected officials who have come out in opposition to the railway project. Echoing objections made by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette, the lawmakers faulted the federal approval process for neglecting to fully evaluate the impact the railway could have on Colorado.
“We believe transporting crude oil along the Colorado River is a risk we cannot afford to take,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Were a train to derail, it would be frontline communities who bear the brunt of the damage, in the air they breathe and the water they drink.”
Buttigieg and the U.S. Department of Transportation could soon face a decision on whether to approve the Uinta Basin Railway’s application for $2 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, the group of Utah county governments that has led the project’s planning and permitting, said earlier this year that it would seek the bonds, which would save the railway tens of millions of dollars annually in financing costs.
Federal regulators estimated in a “downline analysis” that the increased traffic from the Uinta Basin Railway could cause roughly one train accident a year between Kyune, Utah and Denver. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, they predicted, would occur roughly once every five years.
With the prospect of the railway’s construction looming, environmental advocates and communities along the downline route fear that those risks could be compounded by inaction at every level of government.
In the wake of a February derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, and other recent train accidents — including a bridge collapse that caused a hazmat spill into the Yellowstone River in Montana last week — a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington has taken up rail safety legislation, which is currently pending on the Senate floor. Prospects for the bill’s passage by the Republican-controlled House, however, are uncertain, and sponsors have already pared back some of its key provisions.
In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has largely remained on the sidelines of the Uinta Basin Railway issue, though a spokesperson said he opposes the project’s application for the tax-exempt bonds. State agencies like the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Public Utilities Commission have limited authority over the rail industry, though some General Assembly lawmakers want to see the state take a more active role.
And at the local level, rail safety advocates were left bitterly disappointed this week when a majority of Denver City Council members voted to kill a proposed ordinance that would have more strictly regulated land use around freight rail corridors. The measure’s sponsor, longtime City Council Member-at-Large Debbie Ortega, accused outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration of a “strategic effort to completely undermine” a years-long process to develop the policy.
In the Denver metro area, the railway’s potential risks were underlined by an oil-train derailment earlier this month at the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City. A spokesperson for BNSF said that 16 of the 17 derailed tank cars were empty and “no hazardous materials were involved.”
“This is another reminder that derailments are far too common,” Bennet wrote on Twitter. “Had the train cars been full, this would have been a catastrophe. That’s why I’m pushing to stop Uinta (Basin) Railway oil trains from moving through our state.”
A ‘carbon bomb’
In the early summer, the broad, grassy slopes of the foothills beneath Coal Creek Canyon, green and full of blooming wildflowers, appear pristine and unspoiled — but looks can be deceiving.
To the north, the site of the Rocky Flats Plant, which manufactured plutonium pits for nuclear weapons until it was shut down in 1992, has been converted into a wildlife refuge, but longstanding fears about radioactive contamination persist. To the south, a landfill and a natural-gas-fired power plant operate next to residential developments built on the site of the former coal company town of Leyden.
Railroad tycoon David Moffat bought the Leyden Coal Mine in 1902, using it to supply coal both to his Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway over the mountains, better known as the Moffat Road, and to the Denver Tramway Company, which he owned jointly with other city grandees. Not unusually for the time, the Leyden mine experienced its share of deadly disasters, and workers there in 1908 likened it to a “penal colony.”
Denver Tramway ended its streetcar service in 1950, replacing its fleet with buses, and the Leyden mine was shuttered a year later. With the rise of the interstate highway system after World War II, “interurban” rail service was quickly disappearing in Colorado and across the country.
“It was a sad occasion to those who preferred the relatively smooth ride in an interurban car to the more confined jerkey ride in a bus with its accompanying exhaust fumes,” lamented the Colorado Transcript when the last passenger car left Golden for Denver on July 2, 1950.
“It’s a natural progression that railroads fall out of favor, particularly for passengers,” said Paul Hammond, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum. “And of course, the growth of the interstate highway network creates an avenue for trucks to get around in ways that they had never been able to before.”
The car-centric, oil-dependent consumer economy that fueled U.S. growth in the postwar years had profound consequences, beginning with the supply shocks and geopolitical crises of the 1970s, and continuing in the boom-and-bust disruptions that impacted the Western Slope and Denver’s oil industry in the 1980s. But most profound of all is the impact the country’s dependency on oil has had on the Earth’s climate, with tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and other forms of transportation now ranked as the leading source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change has hit particularly hard in the American West, where a relatively wet winter and spring haven’t changed long-term projections for aridification that will continue to stress water supplies and increase wildfire risk in the decades to come.
“We’re seeing with each day the climate emergency unfolding all around us,” said Deeda Seed, senior Utah campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued to block the railway project.
After a two-year environmental review process, the federal Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the Uinta Basin Railway. The lone vote against the project’s approval was the board’s chairman, Martin Oberman, who wrote a blistering dissent faulting the STB’s decision for neglecting to consider “the harm caused to the environment by downstream combustion of increased oil production enabled by the Line’s construction.”
Oberman further called into question what global efforts to transition to clean energy meant for the railway’s financial viability, raising the possibility “that it would be the public — and not private investors — who would bear the cost of constructing an ultimately unprofitable rail project.”
Such concerns have led major players in Utah’s oil industry to attempt a rebrand of their signature product. Compared to other kinds of crude oil, more of the Uinta Basin’s “waxy” crude — named for its high degree of paraffin, or wax — can be used for lubricants and in other industrial applications.
Jim Finley, CEO of Finley Resources, the Uinta Basin’s largest oil producer, estimates that as much as 25% to 30% of its waxy crude can be put to “non-combustible” uses, compared to less than 10% for a typical crude.
“We have taken the word ‘crude oil’ out of our vocabulary,” Finley told board members of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in an October 2021 meeting. “We drill for wax, we produce wax, we ship wax on rail, and we support the wax railroad.”
That sales pitch isn’t winning over the railway’s environmentalist critics. The project’s own backers estimated that it could increase total production in the basin by 350,000 barrels of oil per day, an output that could add up to over a billion barrels over the course of a few decades, even if only 70% of its oil is combusted. The result would be a significantly greater emissions impact than even Biden’s approval earlier this year of the Willow Project in Alaska, denounced by critics like former Vice President Al Gore as “recklessly irresponsible” and “a recipe for climate chaos.”
“It’s just enormous,” said Kate Christensen, an activist with Stop the Uinta Basin Railway, a coalition of Utah and Colorado environmental groups. “The amount of oil they’re going to frack out of this basin if they can build this railway will be catastrophic. It’s absolutely a carbon bomb ready to go off.”
Colorado’s railroading future
For a two-mile stretch east of Olde Town Arvada, the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor runs in parallel with light-rail passenger trains on the Regional Transportation District’s G Line, opened in 2019 after years of delays.
The G Line was one of six new passenger lines envisioned by the RTD FasTracks program passed by area voters in 2004, but challenges have mounted for the transit agency in recent years. A persistent operator shortage has lowered service reliability and forestalled expansion plans. Ridership still hasn’t fully rebounded from a pandemic-era collapse, and the expiration of federal aid programs has clouded the agency’s financial future.
Climate activists and supporters of multimodal transportation have called on local and state officials to do more to pull RTD out of its tailspin, and to further expand transit options that reduce car dependency. It’s a vision that, in large part, centers on a modern-day revival of the regional and interurban passenger lines that connected Colorado communities to one another in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Plans for intercity passenger rail service throughout the Interstate 25 corridor took a major step forward in 2021, when Colorado lawmakers established the Front Range Passenger Rail District with a mandate to make the long-planned line from Pueblo as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, a reality. Other plans for short-line service have been put forward in mountain areas, including even more ambitious proposals like a new train corridor along Interstate 70 west of Denver, studied by the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2014.
Such plans could come with high price tags. But Hammond notes that no mode of transportation can exist without public subsidies, and how to allocate that funding is a “policy choice.”
“Who makes money off of the interstate highways?” Hammond said. “Airports are put together usually by counties. If the airlines had to finance every airport that they landed at, it would be a very different cost proposition.”
Freight rail, too, has a part to play in a clean-energy future, rail workers and environmental advocates say. So-called intermodal shipping, which involves moving containers of goods on flatbed freight cars over long distances before loading them onto shorter-range trucks, can be a more efficient and climate-friendly form of transport — especially if emerging technologies like battery-powered locomotives continue to mature.
“I don’t know that an electric semi is ever going to be able to haul a heavy load over Vail Pass,” said Carl Smith, the Colorado legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART. “But I know a freight train full of containers can get it to Grand Junction, can get it to Glenwood Springs, and then that electric truck only has to go 50 miles or less, with a much smaller load.”
But if new investments in intermodal shipping and revived passenger service make up one possible future for Colorado’s aging rail infrastructure and its dwindling rail workforce, the Uinta Basin Railway represents an entirely different vision. In effect, it would replace declining coal-train traffic on Colorado railroads with high volumes of another heavy-industrial commodity, in one of the largest sustained efforts to transport crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S.
The railway’s projected traffic impacts — as many as five full oil trains eastbound through Denver each day, with five empty ones returning — have drawn widespread concerns that Uinta Basin trains would exceed the capacity of the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through the Moffat Tunnel.
That would raise the possibility of the reopening of the defunct Tennessee Pass line between Leadville and Cañon City, which has been out of service since 1997. The segment’s steep grades, dismal safety record and deteriorated condition make it even more of a concern for many Coloradans than the Moffat Tunnel route. Rio Grande Pacific, the short-line railroad operator that plans to build the Uinta Basin Railway in partnership with the SCIC, is also involved with a proposal to restore tourism-focused passenger trains on Tennessee Pass, though it has assured officials in nearby communities that it doesn’t plan to transport oil on the route.
In an emailed statement, Union Pacific said it has “no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass.”
“In the recent past, train traffic on the Utah to Denver corridor was nearly three times what it is today, in large part, because of a decline in coal trains,” the company said. “This line has the capacity to handle additional trains.”
But without additional specificity, or binding actions like the line’s formal abandonment, communities worried about the reopening of Tennessee Pass say these assurances don’t mean much.
“What they say, they may think now, but money is typically what drives decisions, no matter what anybody thinks right now,” said Matt Scherr, a commissioner in Eagle County, which has sued to overturn the Uinta Basin Railway’s approval. “We just don’t have any confidence that that’s a guarantee.”
Rail safety ordinance defeated
More than 300 miles after entering Colorado through the remote wilderness of Ruby Canyon, eastbound trains approach a point known historically as Utah Junction, in a dense industrial zone near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 25.
Beneath the dull roar of the highway viaducts to the south and east, Union Pacific and BNSF, the two companies that control virtually all of the state’s major rail routes, share the sprawling North Yard facility, which straddles the border between the City and County of Denver and unincorporated Adams County.
Denver would be the most populous city that many Uinta Basin oil trains would pass through en route to refineries in Louisiana or Oklahoma. But outside a dedicated community of climate and environmental activists, opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway in the Mile High City has been relatively muted.
“I wish that Denver was more activated about this, because our air quality is so bad,” Christensen said. “You don’t hear anything from Denver like you do the mountain communities.”
The lack of public outcry in Denver is in part, environmental-justice activists say, a function of which communities would be most affected by increased rail traffic.
Predominantly low-income and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s north side have long been in closest proximity to the rail yards and industrial spurs used heavily by Union Pacific and BNSF freight trains. A 2022 report by advocacy group GreenLatinos cited longstanding concerns like pollution from idling diesel locomotives, dust from coal trains and pedestrian safety risks, and it faulted the rail industry for a lack of publicly available freight-traffic data.
“Derailments happen on the mainline. They happen in Globeville. We’ve seen it,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, GreenLatinos’ Colorado state director.
“We have legitimate alternatives to moving these goods,” he added. “We’re exporting oil for these multinational companies to pay out their dividends, and in the end, we take the harm.”
City officials have estimated that the Uinta Basin Railway could quadruple the amount of hazardous materials that travel daily through Denver within the next few years.
That looming increase, along with heightened fears following the East Palestine derailment and other recent train accidents, added new urgency to a decade-long push by Ortega, the City Council member, to more strictly regulate land use around railroad rights-of-way. Ortega’s proposed ordinance would have implemented a 100-foot setback between new buildings and railroad tracks, unless mitigation measures were implemented.
Ortega’s ordinance drew opposition from Hancock’s administration and real-estate development interests. In a letter to City Council, Rhys Duggan, the developer behind billionaire Stan Kroenke’s River Mile project in downtown Denver, faulted the proposed ordinance for seeking to “address a safety issue that seems to rank well behind other more pressing public safety concerns in the city, such as homelessness, addiction (and) violent crime.”
In a 7-5 vote on Monday, Denver City Council killed the measure.
“It’s not good policy,” Council member Amanda Sandoval said of Ortega’s ordinance prior to Monday’s vote. “I cannot be in favor of something where four major departments come out (against) it.”
In place of additional rail safety rules, emergency-management officials from Hancock’s administration told Council members they plan to request funding in next year’s budget to develop a mass evacuation plan for the city.
Ortega, who will soon leave office after serving on City Council in two separate stints for a total of 28 years, said the measure’s defeat after a years-long process to study the issue and develop recommendations was unlike anything she’d experienced in her time in office.
“To just have this letter that basically is sandbagging this whole process that we’ve been engaged in collectively, without any additional recommendations of how we can do this differently, it just befuddles me,” Ortega said. “I don’t know what really is behind the opposition.”
“I’m going to be going away, but this problem is not,” she added. “You have seen more and more of these derailments happening … and if we have the Uinta Basin shipments coming through here, that quadruples the amount of petroleum products that will come through our city on a daily basis.”
Across Civic Center Park, state lawmakers on the Transportation Legislation Review Committee plan to discuss rail safety in hearings this summer, the committee’s chair, Democratic state Rep. Meg Froelich of Greenwood Village, said earlier this month.
Smith said the SMART union wants to see lawmakers pass additional rail safety laws, including limits on train length and mandating the installation of railway sensors, like so-called hot-box detectors, which can warn operators before high temperatures from wheel friction cause equipment to fail.
Some opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway have been frustrated by a lack of state-level action on the issue. To date, while nearly every Democratic member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, along with Attorney General Phil Weiser, has lodged protests with federal officials over the railway, Polis hasn’t publicly been a part of any such effort.
“We haven’t heard boo from Polis,” Christensen said. “He’s letting these small mountain communities take on the oil and gas industry on their own, and doesn’t seem to have their back.”
In an email, Polis spokesperson Katherine Jones said the governor “supports the state actively evaluating potential impacts to state equities through the opportunities that exist, and has made clear to agencies that they should make these evaluations and weigh in where appropriate.” She indicated that Polis opposes the issuance of federal private activity bonds to support the railway.
“We do not want funding being diverted from the state’s key transportation needs for projects that could have damaging impacts to our rail infrastructure, adjacent road infrastructure like I-70 or the state’s key recreation and outdoor resources,” Jones wrote.
Up and down the line
Before oil trains from the Uinta Basin reach Denver, they’ll have to travel 300 miles through western and central Colorado. Before that, they’ll have to travel more than 150 miles on the existing Union Pacific tracks in Utah. And before that, they’ll have to traverse 88 miles of remote desert and pine forest on the Uinta Basin Railway itself.
Although concerns about the railway have been most acutely felt in Colorado, opponents say the oil trains will pose risks along all 500 of those miles, all the way up the line to the Ashley National Forest and the Duchesne River watershed.
“This is 88 miles of new rail construction, and just that alone would create tremendous environmental harm — everything from negatively impacting water quality to destroying sage grouse habitat,” said Seed. “But then when you add into the mix the climate impacts of this, it gets even worse.”
After passing through Denver, most of the Uinta Basin oil trains would then head for refineries in Texas and Louisiana, federal regulators estimated, with a smaller percentage bound for Oklahoma. Using industry routing models, the STB’s downline analysis determined that most of the trains would travel north or northeast out of Denver, while a smaller amount of traffic would be routed south along the I-25 corridor, or east along I-70.
At a time when scientists have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the need to rapidly and dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions, the Uinta Basin’s increased production could raise total annual U.S. emissions by nearly 1%, regulators estimated.
“Is the Line worth all of this given the activity it is intended to support?” Oberman, the STB’s chair, wrote in his 2021 dissent against the railway’s approval. “Without evidence that there is some particularized need for oil from the Basin, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and given the irrefutable fact that this oil’s use will contribute to the global warming crisis, I cannot say that it is.”
The railway’s proponents, led by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, are adamant that the increased rail traffic will pose no undue risks to Colorado and other states on the downline route, writing in an op-ed earlier this month that though they “understand that project opponents feel the need to be heard,” the Uinta Basin’s toxic waxy crude “does not present an environmental concern if there were a derailment.”
“These things and far more are already going through their backyard every day,” Keith Heaton, the SCIC’s executive director, said in an interview. “The waxy crude, and the way we’re intending to do it, is probably one of the least of their worries in life … The logistics of all of this make it relatively speaking pretty safe and harmless.”
SCIC representatives said at the coalition’s June meeting that they plan to submit an application for the tax-exempt private activity bonds “in the near future,” setting up a potentially pivotal decision for Buttigieg and the DOT.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration will say no, because this sort of thing is so entirely contrary to their stated policies about addressing the climate crisis,” Seed said.
Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation wrote in a letter to Buttigieg this year that there is “no precedent” for the approval of private activity bonds to finance industrial fossil-fuel infrastructure, and opponents say that the railway’s decision to apply for them is a sign that the project is already on shaky financial ground.
“This is such a sketchy project. It’s highly speculative,” Seed said. “It seems like they’re having trouble raising the money.”
Led by Bennet and Neguse, Colorado officials have asked at least four different federal agencies to intervene to halt or re-analyze the project. Although the U.S. Forest Service last year said it would issue a key permit for a railroad right-of-way through a protected area, it has not yet issued a so-called record of decision under the National Environmental Policy Act, meaning that it could still choose to deny the permit.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by Eagle County, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups is pending, after oral arguments were heard in May by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. If the court finds fault with the STB’s decision, it could choose to overturn the decision entirely, though it’s more likely, several plaintiffs said, that it would remand the case back to the agency with instructions to more closely scrutinize downline impacts and potential mitigation measures.
For many people in Colorado, however, the risks of the Uinta Basin Railway will likely always be too great to shoulder, the worst-case scenarios too numerous to count. If the railway is built, Colorado communities could face decades of anxiety about the potentially catastrophic consequences it could one day bring to their doorsteps — a truck crash in Palisade, a fire in Dotsero, a spill in Fraser, an explosion in Globeville. History and the STB’s accident analysis leave no doubt: As the years pass, the likelihood that disaster will strike at some point, somewhere down the line, grows closer to a statistical certainty.
“What we’ve seen with all of these disasters is lots of assurances from both (industries) and the railroads themselves saying that things are safe. They’re clearly not — at least not to the extent that I think the public expects,” Scherr, the Eagle County commissioner, said. “There is an accepted rate of incident, because they have those formulas, and they expect them.”
“When we’ve seen all these disasters, the public is clearly not in agreement with what may be an acceptable level of risk,” he continued. “When you increase volume, you will increase incidents. And what those incidents look like are varied, including derailments, which in this case risks dumping that freight into the water supply for 40 million people downstream.”
At 88 miles long, with a projected capacity of up to 350,000 barrels per day, eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin Railway would rank among the most ambitious efforts to haul crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the United States.
But it’s not the largest ever considered.
That label belongs to a proposed 580-mile, dual-track railroad to the northern coast of Alaska studied by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the early 1970s. The route would have hauled as much as 2 million barrels per day from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, but in the end it was ditched in favor of what was deemed a safer and more efficient method of transport: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which instead pumped the oil 800 miles to the port of Valdez, where it could be loaded into tanker ships.
It was a solution that came with its own set of risks, and in the years leading up to the pipeline’s completion, the federal government and the consortium of oil companies that built it made a series of assurances about the safeguards that would be in place. Experienced harbor pilots would guide vessels through the length of Prince William Sound. An upgraded navigation system would further reduce the chances of a ship veering off course. Tankers would be double-hulled to lower the risks of spills, and robust contingency plans would spell out effective containment measures in the event that disaster did strike.
In short, facing widespread environmental concerns, the backers of the project promised that everything would be fine. For nearly 12 years, it was.
Gradually, however, many of the promised safety measures went unfulfilled, ebbed away or fell victim to cost-cutting. Pilotage requirements were eased at oil companies’ request. The region’s navigation system was downgraded to save money. The Coast Guard dropped its double-hull mandate in the face of industry opposition, and contingency plans were drawn up based on unrealistic assumptions.
As the risks mounted, and minor incidents and near-misses added up, environmental advocates issued increasingly urgent warnings about the tanker traffic in Prince William Sound. Long before a tanker named the Exxon Valdez left the port late on March 23, 1989, locals knew “the Big One” was coming. On the very night that the tanker departed, in fact, marine biologist Riki Ott spoke at a public meeting of concerned Valdez residents to warn officials of the potential consequences.
“When, not if, ‘the Big One’ does occur, and much or all of the income from a fishing season is lost, compensation for processors, support industries and local communities will be difficult if not impossible to obtain,” Ott said in remarks made just hours before the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the early-morning darkness on March 24.
Of the dozens of Colorado communities lying along the “downline” route of the Uinta Basin Railway’s oil trains, fears of a potential “Big One” may be highest in Grand County, where the Colorado River and several of its fragile tributaries flow through the high alpine meadows of Middle Park. Just like Ott and other concerned Alaskans in the 1980s, residents here speak about what happens when, not if, a train derails. They’ve grown especially apprehensive following a derailment and chemical spill involving a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, in February.
“The chances of derailment in Colorado along these windy canyons goes way up,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of conservation group Trout Unlimited. “East Palestine, Ohio, didn’t give us any confidence, either.”
An oil spill here, not far from where the Colorado River’s headwaters flow from the western side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, could immediately threaten water supplies in towns that rely on it as their one and only source. Farther along, where the railroad finally parts ways with the Colorado and turns south to follow the Fraser River’s course instead, a spill could pollute water on both sides of the divide, since much of the Fraser’s water is diverted through several tunnels under the mountains to thirsty cities on the populous Front Range.
“Damaging the environment for a long period of time — I think that would have an impact all the way down, since we’re the headwaters,” Klancke said. “Especially considering how hard it is to clean this up.”
In East Palestine and other towns nearby, residents are bracing themselves for regulatory and court proceedings that could take years to unfold, amid lingering uncertainty about exposure levels and the long-term health risks posed by hazards like the toxic vinyl chloride that was burned in the aftermath of the derailment.
Hilary Flint, a resident of nearby Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, said she and many others have experienced health symptoms like rashes, burning eyes and respiratory issues in the months following the accident. A cancer survivor, Flint said she plans to move out of her fourth-generation family home and relocate out of state after testing showed elevated levels of vinyl chloride and ethylhexyl acrylate, another hazardous chemical that was spilled as a result of the crash.
Along with other members of a group called the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment Community, Flint is organizing residents to make demands of Norfolk Southern and advocate for regulations to limit the risk of similar incidents occurring in the future.
“For the people that are in a town with train tracks going right through, now is the time to check and see: What training is your fire department doing?” she said. “What type of emergency response plan exists?”
“What happened in East Palestine can happen anywhere,” Flint added. “If we’re not holding these large companies accountable, this is going to keep happening in small communities, and everyone needs to be prepared for what that could look like.”
After completing the last of the sharp curves that snake through Byers Canyon, eastbound trains on the Union Pacific railroad emerge directly into the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, passing between the Colorado River and the resort that has drawn visitors here for more than 150 years.
Soon, as many as five fully loaded, two-mile long crude oil trains per day could pass just a hundred feet from the naturally heated pools of mineral spring water at the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa. As they pass through town, trains block the only entrance to the resort, a dirt road that intersects with the tracks at a so-called grade crossing — one of many such crossings across rural Colorado that lack the gate arms and warning lights that are required in more highly-trafficked areas.
“There are locations all over the state that don’t have the emergency arms over the railroad tracks,” Craig Hurst, manager of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Freight Mobility and Safety Branch, said in an interview.
“You still see far too many rail and truck events, where the truck is centered on a rail line, and a locomotive, obviously, couldn’t stop that quickly,” Hurst said. “You can’t see very far in some of these locations — you can do everything right and still be in a bad spot.”
Though they’re one of the most common causes of train accidents, collisions with cars and trucks at grade crossings are just one of many reasons trains in Colorado derail. More than 480 accidents on “mainline” rail segments across the state have been reported to the Federal Railroad Administration since 2000, with causes ranging from broken or worn-out tracks and defective equipment to rockslides, heavy snowfall and other “extreme environmental conditions,” including floods and high winds.
Though railroads are tight-lipped about the freight that travels on their rails, estimates from federal regulators and summary data released by local officials suggest the Uinta Basin Railway could more than quadruple the amount of freight rail traffic through central Colorado, and dramatically increase the percentage of that traffic that is made up of hazardous materials.
“When you are significantly increasing rail traffic in one area, then whatever risks there may be — and there are always risks — those simply are magnified,” Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said in an interview. Eagle County has joined five environmental groups in suing to overturn the railway’s approval.
In its environmental review of the project, the federal Surface Transportation Board analyzed “downline” impacts like the increased risk of train accidents in Colorado, including a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil roughly once every five years.
But the STB’s analysis stopped there. It didn’t examine in detail the risks that such a spill could pose to communities and ecosystems in the downline area — an omission that Eagle County’s lawsuit called “arbitrary and capricious.”
With the STB’s approval and the granting by the U.S. Forest Service of a 12-mile right-of-way permit through a protected area in Utah’s Ashley National Forest, President Joe Biden’s administration is poised to greenlight the Uinta Basin Railway over objections from Colorado officials. The project still needs to secure billions of dollars in financing before construction can begin; backers have announced plans to seek tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds that must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, drawing further protests from the railway’s opponents.
Even without the increased oil-train traffic, Middle Park is a region where water supplies are under threat.
In Hot Sulphur Springs, where 100% of the town’s water comes from the Colorado River, residents this spring were under the latest in a series of water conservation orders that the Public Works Department has implemented since the 2020 East Troublesome Fire. Spring runoff flowing over ash and silt in the fire’s burn scar has increased the turbidity of the water that Hot Sulphur Springs draws from the river, slowing down the rate at which it can treat drinking water.
Like most crude oils, the waxy crude produced in the Uinta Basin is a toxic cocktail of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, from heavy metals to volatile organic compounds like benzene.
When 60,000 gallons of oil were spilled into Canada’s North Saskatchewan River by a leaky pipeline in 2016, three cities that drew drinking water from the river were forced to shut down their intakes for nearly two months while authorities evaluated health risks and treatment options. A temporary 18-mile pipeline was laid to provide potable water to residents in the meantime. Similar precautions were being taken this week by communities who rely on the Yellowstone River in Montana, where a bridge collapse caused a hazmat spill from a train operated by Montana Rail Link.
The cost to clean up the Saskatchewan spill — a release of about two tanker cars’ worth of oil — totaled at least $107 million.
“If you lose your water supply,” Klancke said, “it’s going to cost these towns a lot of money to get it back.”
‘An absolute disaster’
Heading east into Granby, trains on the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor travel along the southern edge of the Windy Gap Reservoir, a potent symbol of Grand County’s vulnerable water supplies and the risks that its rivers face in a hotter, drier climate.
Disasters like the East Troublesome Fire — an unprecedented fast-moving blaze that scorched more than 150,000 acres in the headwaters region over a two-day period in late October — have laid bare the stakes of climate change. But even before the worsening risks of drought and aridification are taken into account, Grand County’s rivers and streams rank as some of the most endangered waterways in the country.
“We only have 40% of our native flows, because 60% gets diverted to Front Range cities,” Klancke said. For years, his Trout Unlimited chapter has lobbied for projects to restore the health of riparian ecosystems in the region, like a $27 million diversion channel that will allow fish to bypass the Windy Gap dam.
Located at the confluence of the Colorado and Fraser rivers, the Windy Gap Reservoir collects tens of thousands of acre-feet of water per year, which is pumped six miles north to Lake Granby and then under the Continental Divide to the watershed of the Big Thompson River. It’s part of an extensive system of reservoirs and conduits that make up the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to 1 million people in 33 Front Range municipalities.
It’s only one of several “transbasin” diversion projects that impact watersheds in Grand County. And the reduced flows that result from the diversions are a big reason why residents and county officials are especially worried about the consequences of an oil spill here.
“They say the solution to pollution is dilution — if you’re able to get more water to come through, eventually it will clean out,” said Rich Cimino, a Grand County commissioner. “But our rivers are shrunk. We’re spending millions of dollars over decades to narrow and deepen and shade our streams. A lot of repair work has to happen so that these streams can be healthy again, with less water.”
“If there was some kind of a spill, these little streams would just be obliterated,” Cimino added. “It would be an absolute disaster, even worse than if we didn’t have the water diversions.”
Residents here accept the inevitability of the transbasin diversions; 80% of Colorado’s precipitation falls on the western side of the Continental Divide, but 90% of its population lives on the eastern side. But the arrangement means that much of the responsibility for mitigating risks to Front Range water supplies falls on a county with only a fraction of the Interstate 25 corridor’s population and financial resources.
Granby, two miles east of the Windy Gap dam, is the largest of Grand County’s municipalities, with a whopping 2,079 residents.
“Small counties like us — we ourselves aren’t capable of cleaning up (an oil spill),” said Klancke. “Yet we’re going to be the first responders.”
Grand County is hardly a hotbed of tree-hugging, anti-fossil-fuel sentiment. It’s a world away from the liberal jet-set enclaves of Vail and Aspen, and all three members of its Board of County Commissioners are Republicans.
But after hearing from concerned residents and groups like Trout Unlimited, commissioners wrote in a February letter to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis that the county would be “formally opposing” the Uinta Basin Railway unless a series of safeguards were put in place. The requested contingency measures included an emergency response plan approved by state wildlife officials and the hiring of an experienced cleanup contractor on retainer.
“Grand County is very concerned with the capacity and response times of the specialized emergency services capable of containing a crude oil spill,” commissioners wrote. “Should a spill occur in Grand County, it will have reverberating impacts across the entire state of Colorado.”
Anne Junod, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has studied the risks and community perceptions of oil trains, said in an interview that her research shows a unique set of concerns on the part of residents who live along rail corridors outside of major metropolitan areas.
“What you see is, the emergency and first responders tend to be a lot more volunteer-based — they just have fewer resources, less emergency responder capacity, smaller tax bases to invest in those types of things than your larger metros,” she said.
In recent decades, most major train disasters have occurred in rural areas like East Palestine, where, compared to densely-populated cities, there are far more miles of track and fewer people and resources to properly inspect and maintain them.
“It really is just a numbers game — there’s over 140,000 miles of track in the U.S., and well over 100,000 of those are going through rural and tribal areas,” Junod said.
“You have these larger inspection regions, where for the most part it’s impossible to adequately spend the time you need to make sure that tracks and infrastructure are adequate quality,” she added. “What we’ve been seeing over the last 15 to 20 years — a lot of the catastrophic derailments we’ve seen, (National Transportation Safety Board) findings have shown that oftentimes, it’s due to inspection issues that just weren’t caught.”
So far, Grand County hasn’t received any of the assurances it asked for. Though its opposition to the railway came too late for it to join other Colorado city and county governments in supporting Eagle County’s lawsuit in an amicus brief earlier this year, Cimino, for his part, wishes the county had understood the risks sooner.
“I’m confident we would have (joined), if we had known everything at the right time,” he said. “Just up and down, it’s only negatives to us, no positives to us.”
In the winter, trains bound for Denver climb a tree-lined ridge a few miles south of the town of Fraser, then emerge into a clearing where they can find themselves in a race with skiers just a hundred feet to their right, making their way down a beginner’s slope that runs in parallel with the railroad to the base of the Winter Park Resort.
It’s the only ski resort in America served directly by passenger rail — not an insignificant selling point, at a time of widespread angst about wintertime traffic congestion on the Interstate 70 corridor. Like so many other parts of Colorado’s railroading legacy, the “Ski Train” was pioneered by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1940, Winter Park’s first year in operation, and although the service has lapsed several times since then, Amtrak has run its weekend Winter Park Express line during the ski season since 2017.
Grand County’s population can double during the busiest periods of the winter and summer tourist seasons, leaving it heavily dependent on the economic activity generated by skiing, rafting, fishing and other outdoor activities.
Colorado has over 9,000 miles of fishable trout streams, but only 325 of them are deemed “Gold Medal” waters, a certification from Colorado Parks and Wildlife that a river segment can consistently produce quality stock. Forty of those miles lie within Grand County. Advocates like Klancke are proud of the hard-won designation for such a vulnerable area — and fearful that all of that progress could be suddenly undone by an oil spill.
“It means a lot of dollars on a state level. For us, it’s in the tens of millions, just in our small community,” Klancke said. “It’s a huge part of our economy, so that would be the main loss from a financial point.”
Such concerns are why, in addition to contingency plans and response equipment, Grand County asked for funds to be placed in an escrow account to cover the costs of a potential oil spill caused by a Uinta Basin train. The county’s request didn’t specify an amount, but noted that the cleanup of a 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River ran to $1.2 billion.
“A bond in place to guarantee payment for loss, rather than years of being in court — in a small county, these are the ways we have to think,” Klancke said. “We don’t have the money to incur the loss of funds for a long period of time.”
It’s a lesson that opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway are drawing from countless oil spills and other disasters over the decades, from the Exxon Valdez to East Palestine. Often, the immediate ecological damage and emergency response only represent the start of a disaster that can take years to fully unfold.
In Grand County and elsewhere, the deepest fears about the railway concern the unknown — the uncertain future that would await communities along the Colorado River in the event of a catastrophe that, in the words of 10 local governments in their March legal brief supporting Eagle County’s lawsuit, “could ruin this unique region for decades.”
For coastal communities in Alaska, some of the most devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez spill were those that accumulated gradually in the years afterwards, as the long-term harm to fisheries became clear, a court battle over damages dragged on for almost two decades, and individuals and families suffered from what psychologists call collective or disaster trauma.
Nearly five months after the East Palestine derailment, residents are steeling themselves for what could prove to be a similar experience in the months and years ahead. As is often the case, divisions within the community are forming as environmental mitigation, legal proceedings and public-relations efforts by Norfolk Southern get underway.
“A lot of the communities are split — half of the people are sick, they’re pissed off, they’re trying to fight,” Flint said. “The other half are really just kind of acting like nothing’s wrong. They’re like, ‘Well, the EPA has told us everything’s fine. Norfolk Southern is giving us a $25 million park now. That’s great.’”
Community members have asked Ohio state officials and Norfolk Southern to fund independent environmental monitoring and health testing for impacted residents, as well as to cover temporary relocation and cleanup costs for those who may be at risk of continued exposure.
“We’re almost at five months, and there are people that have never gotten to leave their home, and never had their homes professionally cleaned, that have just been exposed continually, and that’s unacceptable,” Flint said. “There’s so much incomplete information going around that it’s made it very difficult for people to understand what we’re really dealing with.”
Junod noted widespread concerns about railroad liability insurance following a 2013 explosion caused by an oil-train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Canada. Insurers at the time offered liability coverage of up to $1.5 billion for the largest rail operators; Norfolk Southern has said it’s insured for losses of up to $1.1 billion in the wake of the East Palestine accident. But even in rural areas, damages can far exceed those amounts.
“East Palestine is the most recent, it is not unique. Most of these are happening in towns about that size or even smaller,” Junod said. “We have a market failure that cannot cover, I’m not even going to say a worst-case scenario, (just) a bad-case scenario. It just will not address the magnitude of the potential impact — economic loss, and then, of course, human loss.”
The ‘short line to Zion’
Eastbound trains approach the curve at the base of Winter Park slowly. Past the bunny slopes and the resort’s bare-bones Amtrak stop, they cross a short bridge over the Fraser River and an access road.
Then they disappear into darkness.
Railroad tycoon David Moffat didn’t live to see the completion — or even the beginning — of the 6.2-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide that bears his name. He died nearly penniless in New York in 1911, having exhausted his fortune trying and failing to end a half-century of frustration by building a direct transcontinental route over the Rocky Mountains west of Denver.
Incorporated in 1902, the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway, better known as the “Moffat Road,” was the final attempt to realize what had become a lifelong fixation for Moffat, who had previously surveyed potential routes across the Divide as president of the Denver & Rio Grande in the 1880s.
The Moffat Road achieved a partial victory in 1904, when it built what was to be a temporary line across Rollins Pass, at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet. But tracks were subsequently laid only as far as the Yampa River Valley, never reaching Salt Lake City to complete the “short line to Zion” that Moffat had promised, and the high costs of building and maintaining the railroad in the near-constant blizzard conditions atop the mountains bankrupted the company before work on a long-planned tunnel could begin.
It took more than a decade of effort following Moffat’s death, and a large public subsidy raised by a new tax district, for crews to finally start digging. The Moffat Tunnel’s construction was among the largest and most dangerous infrastructure projects in Colorado history, costing an estimated $410 million in 2022 dollars and resulting in the deaths of 28 workers. Today, the tunnel is still owned by the state, and rented out to Union Pacific on a 99-year lease that expires in 2025.
Alongside the main tunnel, a service shaft used by workers during construction today serves a different purpose: transporting up to 100,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River Basin to the Front Range to be used by the Denver Water system.
On the Western Slope, it takes eastbound trains more than 150 miles to gradually climb from 5,200 feet in elevation near Rifle to the west entrance of the Moffat Tunnel at 9,200 feet. But after exiting the tunnel on the other side of the Divide, trains reverse that gain in a 4,000-foot descent that takes fewer than 50 miles as they charge down the steep eastern face of the Front Range into Denver.
Much of that descent comes in the narrow gorges of the South Boulder Creek watershed, alongside flows that in large part are diverted into the creek by the Moffat service tunnel.
“Gross Reservoir is mostly Fraser River water, with some South Boulder Creek water,” Klancke said. “So a spill there — Denver could lose a large percentage of their water supply to the north end.”
Denver Water, which serves more than 1.5 million people in the city and surrounding suburbs, oversees a large system with three water treatment plants and reservoirs in multiple watersheds, giving it “some flexibility to pull water from different sources” in the event of a major spill, a spokesperson wrote in an email. But Jim Lochhead, the utility’s CEO, wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this year about mitigating the risks posed by the Uinta Basin Railway.
“We joined nearby counties, organizations, elected officials and coalitions to request that more be done to protect Colorado’s water if the project is approved, including analysis of rail safety practices, an assessment of the health of railroad infrastructure through this corridor, and assistance to local authorities in preparing for — and responding to — a spill, including response plans for each county,” said Denver Water’s Jimmy Luthye.
Klancke and others in Trout Unlimited’s Headwaters chapter like to say they’re “not a fishing club,” but an environmental organization “with members who like to fish.” In such a fragile environment, near the very source of a river that so many people across Colorado and the West depend on, that attitude is born out of necessity. From Grand County, it’s not possible to travel any further upstream; damage done here, whether by a catastrophic oil spill or the mounting drought and wildfire risks posed by climate change, could very well be permanent.
“Our chapter, we live at ground zero,” Klancke said. “And we feel if we can’t save these rivers, then all the rest of the rivers in Colorado on the Western Slope are lost, too.”
Beneath the limestone cliffs, the trunk of a lone, dead lodgepole pine stuck straight up from the brush along the riverbank, looming over a remote stretch of the Colorado River in northern Eagle County.
Inside the train cars passing by on the opposite side of the river, a voice came over the loudspeaker, pointing out to passengers the dark shape perched inside the nest atop the barren tree.
“The two bald eagles are gone, but that’s one of the younger ones that hatched this year,” the Amtrak conductor said. “They won’t get their crown of white feathers on top of their head until they’re almost a year and a half old — they look like giant crows, really, the younger ones. Maybe we’ll see mom and dad fishing down here in a little while.”
No part of the 51-hour journey between Chicago and Oakland is more vital to the appeal of Amtrak’s California Zephyr than the 100-mile segment between stops in Glenwood Springs and Granby. Few passengers opt for the Zephyr because it’s an efficient mode of cross-country travel; they’re in it for the scenery, and the high country of the central Rocky Mountains provides that in abundance.
The Dotsero Cutoff, as this part of the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor is known, became in 1934 the last major segment of the current route to be completed. It ended a 75-year struggle by Colorado leaders to establish a relatively direct east-to-west rail route over the Rockies to Utah, finally eliminating the southward detour to Pueblo and the Royal Gorge that had added nearly 200 miles to the journey between Denver and Salt Lake City.
With Union Pacific’s closure of the Tennessee Pass line to the southeast in 1997, the Dotsero Cutoff became the only way to travel from the Western Slope to the Front Range by rail. It’s the route that as many as five fully loaded, two-mile-long crude oil trains from Utah’s Uinta Basin could soon take on their way to refineries in Texas and Louisiana, drastically increasing the flow of hazardous materials on some of the most rugged stretches of railroad track in the country.
The project, backed by a partnership between seven Utah county governments and private industry, has received several key approvals from the Biden administration, despite mounting protests from Colorado officials. The railway’s backers have signaled they will soon apply for $2 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds that must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
By the time eastbound trains pass through Glenwood Springs, they’ve already gained nearly 2,000 feet in elevation since crossing the Colorado-Utah border, and they will gain roughly 3,000 more as they continue their charge upwards through the Colorado River Valley, nearly as far as the river’s headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After turning to the northeast at Dotsero, leaving Interstate 70 behind, the Central Corridor mainline winds through narrow gorges and sensitive wetlands along little-traveled dirt roads, and even into remote corners of wilderness where there are no roads at all. Amtrak conductors, pulling double duty as tour guides, tell passengers of the only two ways to pass through a four-mile stretch of Gore Canyon southwest of Kremmling: in comfort on the California Zephyr, or over the dangerous Class V rapids on the Colorado River below.
This was the region where the historic Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which ruled Colorado’s railroads for over a century before being acquired by the Union Pacific in 1996, earned its boastful motto of “Through the Rockies, Not Around Them.” And it’s where many Coloradans fear the Uinta Basin Railway’s crude oil trains would be most likely to cause an accident.
A derailment or spill in this region could be disastrous for communities and ecosystems along the river, the railway’s opponents say, especially in an era of worsening impacts from climate change. The grandeur of these mountain vistas goes hand in hand with their vulnerability, and many of them are more at-risk than ever — even before a daily deluge of crude oil trains is added to the mix.
“With the great beauty and awe of these sheer cliffs, they tend to crumble,” said Jonathan Godes, a City Council member and former mayor of Glenwood Springs. “It’s a very fragile place, as we’ve seen over just the last several years.”
General Motors executive Cyrus Osborn was traveling through Glenwood Canyon on a new diesel locomotive his company had built for the Denver & Rio Grande Railway on July 4, 1944, when the idea came to him: a passenger car with a domed roof that would allow tourists traveling the Rockies by rail to take in the sights.
The first California Zephyr train rolled through the canyon five years later with five gleaming steel Vista-Dome cars in tow, inaugurating a railroading tradition that lives on today in the domed sightseer lounges still offered on the modern-day Zephyr and six other Amtrak passenger lines. So instantly iconic were the Vista-Domes that in 1950 the Denver & Rio Grande erected a monument in Glenwood Canyon commemorating the site where Osborn had his vision, and for decades a scale replica of the silver sightseeing coach sat atop a stone arch by the Colorado River near Grizzly Creek.
But today the monument sits among the other relics in the yard at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. It was evicted in the late 1980s, when crews building the final section of I-70, after decades of planning and design, finally entered the canyon.
Opened to traffic in 1992, the 12.5 miles of tunnels, bridges, viaducts and retaining walls between Dotsero and Glenwood Springs were some of the last of the more than 40,000 miles of interstate envisioned by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, and, at $40 million per mile, some of the most expensive.
Nationally, the project marked “the completion of the original U.S. interstate highway system,” federal officials declared. In western Colorado, it symbolized the final victory of cars and trucks over the iron horses that had first steamed into the Colorado River Valley a century earlier.
For the 2,000-foot rock walls of Glenwood Canyon, though, a century passes in the blink of an eye. The Colorado River has been carving through them, inch by inch, for over three million years — a process that neither the railroad nor the interstate could ever hope to stop.
Rockfalls and washouts have long wreaked havoc on any form of transportation attempted through the canyon. The dirt paths and two-lane state roads that preceded the interstate’s construction were some of Colorado’s most dangerous. Since 1976, at least 21 train accidents reported to the Federal Railroad Administration have occurred within the canyon’s boundaries.
Rocks on the track were to blame for the derailment of a California Zephyr train in Glenwood Canyon in 1968, and a “heavy build-up of snow on the track” caused an Amtrak derailment on Christmas 1988. A train hauling 14,000 tons of coal derailed near Grizzly Creek due to broken spikes in 2004. The partial collapse of a tunnel wall just east of Glenwood Springs caused another Union Pacific freight train to derail in May 2017.
But a new era of Glenwood Canyon dangers began with back-to-back disasters in 2020 and 2021. First, the Grizzly Creek Fire scorched more than 32,000 acres in and around the canyon during what became by far Colorado’s worst wildfire season on record. A year later, heavy rainfall triggered mudslides in the fire’s burn scar, sending heavy debris flows plummeting down its cliffs and into the river below and closing I-70 and the railroad for weeks.
Cleanup and repair costs after the 2021 mudslides ran into the tens of millions of dollars, and Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has asked the federal government for a total of up to $116 million for projects that would mitigate the risks of similar damage in the future.
For many people in Colorado, the Grizzly Creek Fire and its aftermath became a potent symbol of the dangers and disruptions the state faces as climate change worsens. Now, for many of those Coloradans, the fragile Glenwood Canyon epitomizes the additional risks posed by the Uinta Basin Railway — which would not only increase heavy freight traffic and hazardous-materials shipments through the canyon but also help fuel the very climate crisis that’s putting it under stress in the first place.
“It’s incredibly problematic, running 10 miles’ worth of toxic waxy crude through some of the most sensitive and fragile and dangerous territory, possibly in the country,” said Godes.
In some places, the debris flows in August 2021 buried the Union Pacific tracks under several feet of mud. Less severe flows and washouts have continued to impact rail operations through the canyon, including on two separate occasions last month.
“Fortunately, there wasn’t a train going through, but it completely buried that line,” Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr said of the 2021 mudslides. “And at this point, if you up the volume of rail traffic to the extent they’re talking about, it’s just a much higher likelihood that any landslide that does happen is going to hit a train.”
“We are aware of the hazards of mudslides in Colorado, which impacts both rail and highways, and we are working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation to mitigate risks,” a Union Pacific spokesperson wrote in an email.
In April, some of Colorado’s top elected officials chose a spot beside the river in Glenwood Canyon for a press conference in which they denounced the railway project in some of their strongest language yet. Standing beside an oil drum representing one of the roughly 315,000 barrels of crude that could pass through the canyon daily, Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet said approval of the project “would be a black mark on the president’s environmental record.”
“This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado, period,” Bennet said. “Anybody who has spent any serious time in this canyon understands what the risks really are — what these mudslides really look like, what these fires really look like.”
‘Elevated risk factors’
There were no mudslides or blizzards in Glenwood Canyon on the night of Jan. 15, 1909 — just a busy railroad, two train crews speeding towards their destinations, and a system that lacked standardized safety measures and regulations.
By the time the crew of the westbound Denver & Rio Grande passenger train came around the bend near Spruce Creek and saw the oncoming freight train, it was too late. The passenger train’s engineer had misjudged the time by 10 minutes, and the two trains collided head-on in a fiery crash.
The Dotsero train wreck, which killed 21 people, injured more than 30 others and made headlines all around the country, remains one of the deadliest rail accidents in state history. It was one of a series of disasters in Colorado and across the country that added up to a crisis of railroad safety around the turn of the 20th century, as traffic on the rails continued to rise in the absence of accurate timekeeping, reliable equipment and adequate signaling systems.
Public outcry over such wrecks helped lead to the establishment of the Colorado State Railroad Commission in 1907. In its second biennial report to the state Legislature, issued in the wake of the Dotsero wreck, the commission decried “the appalling loss of life and property in collisions” plaguing the state. The mounting death toll was, the commission wrote in a special safety report that year, “due, in part, to the heavy volume of business being done by the roads of this state, and the further fact that many of our mountain roads have long, heavy grades, and not infrequently the air pumps or brakes, for some unaccountable reason, fail to respond at the critical period.”
Overcoming legal challenges brought by railroad companies against its constitutionality, the Railroad Commission led the charge to improve train safety in Colorado. Its work proved successful and popular enough that in 1914 the Legislature expanded the body and renamed it the Public Utilities Commission, granting it the authority to regulate the electric, gas, water and streetcar industries the way it had the railroads.
Technology and regulation have steadily improved rail safety over time, and the American Association of Railroads, an industry lobby group, calls this the safest period in the history of railroading. Industry groups are especially keen to point out data showing that transporting hazardous materials by rail is significantly safer than doing it by truck.
But a recent rise in longer, heavier trains in accordance with an industry practice known as “precision scheduled railroading” has prompted new safety concerns, and critics fault the rail industry for dragging its feet on implementing measures like modern braking systems and higher standards for tank cars. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a letter to Norfolk Southern following the February train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, urged an end to “vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures.”
Among the rail industry’s critics, the East Palestine incident and other subsequent derailments have raised fears that the bill could be coming due on decades of corporate consolidation and investor pressure on railroads to cut costs and maximize profits. Such fears were also prevalent a decade ago, when a major increase in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail resulted in dozens of reported derailments, spills, fires and explosions, leading environmental activists to launch campaigns nationwide against what they labeled “bomb trains.”
Oil-by-rail shipments peaked at an average of over 1 million barrels per day in 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a surge that experts say was never likely to be permanent. A 2014 congressional report explained that the increase occurred after “rapid expansion of oil production … strained the capacity of existing pipelines,” and accurately predicted that the crude shipments by rail would ebb as the “pipeline bottleneck” was eased. By last year, those shipments had fallen to an average of about 268,000 barrels per day.
That makes the Uinta Basin Railway different than many other oil-by-rail projects in the recent past, since there’s no prospect of a conventional oil pipeline replacing it. For however long into the future drillers in eastern Utah are producing large volumes of waxy crude oil, federal regulators expect the railway would direct the vast majority of it through Colorado. At an estimated capacity of up to 315,000 barrels per day — more than was shipped by rail across the entire country in 2022, including imports from Canada — the project would make the Union Pacific route between the Kyune, Utah and Denver the nation’s new oil-by-rail superhighway.
Oil-by-rail shipments from Rocky Mountain states
In a “downline analysis,” the federal Surface Transportation Board predicted that Uinta Basin oil trains could, on average, cause a rail accident between Kyune and Denver once every 13 months. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, regulators predict, will occur roughly once every five years.
But a coalition of 10 Colorado city and county governments argued in a legal brief earlier this year that those projections understate the true risk level. They cited federal data and an analysis by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that found that trains hauling crude oil tankers are “heavier in total, more challenging to control… (and) more prone to derailments when put in emergency braking.”
“The Board neither disclosed nor analyzed these elevated risk factors, relying instead on apples-to-oranges national averages that are inapplicable to these longer, heavier trains,” wrote the governments in a brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Eagle County and five environmental groups against the STB over its approval of the railway.
Though Bennet and others in Colorado’s congressional delegation have called on the Biden administration to halt the project, some railway opponents want state-level officials to take a more active role in opposing it. So far, opposition from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration has been muted, though the governor, through a spokesperson, has expressed “concerns” about the project.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission may have been established as a railroad watchdog, but today the industry makes up only a small part of its regulatory portfolio. Following federal legislation that abolished the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1995, “the PUC doesn’t have as much authority as it did previously,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email. The agency denied repeated interview requests with state rail safety officials, citing a lack of “media training” among staff.
In the mid-2010s, state and local opposition in the Pacific Northwest successfully blocked a series of proposals that would have dramatically increased oil-by-rail shipments to West Coast refineries. The largest of those projects, a proposed rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, would have generated roughly the same amount of oil-train traffic as the Uinta Basin Railway, but it was abandoned in 2018.
“We fortunately were able to defeat those, because the environmental and human health risks are just too great,” said Kristen Boyles, a Seattle-based attorney with environmental group Earthjustice who worked to defeat the projects. “Which is why it’s so frustrating to have had that history, and to have had that public outcry about the danger these oil trains pose, and have that sort of die down a little bit — and then, nope, it pops up again with the train in Utah.”
As trains bound for Denver approach Gore Canyon from the southwest, Amtrak conductors point out another favorite landmark: the wreckage of several cars strewn about the steep rocky slope across the river. They tumbled hundreds of feet down from the cliffside road overhead decades ago, and recovery of them is too dangerous.
Around the next bend, the wreckage disappears, and so does the road. For the next four miles, the Union Pacific railroad travels along the river alone.
On a snowy night in November 2014, a westbound Union Pacific freight train had made it roughly halfway through this remote stretch when it “had rocks fall into train,” according to the brief accident report filed later. Though only one car in the half-empty train jumped the tracks, the derailment and track damage closed the route for days.
It was the sixth train accident in Gore Canyon in the previous 16 years, according to safety records from the Federal Railroad Administration. The lead locomotive hauling a 99-car eastbound train derailed in November 1998 due to a “rock slide in face of train.” Another rock slide near one of the canyon’s tunnels derailed nine cars in 2005. The accident report filed after a six-car March 2000 derailment there simply states that the train “went into undesired emergency.”
Perhaps more than any other scenario, opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway are haunted by the thought of what could happen if an oil-train accident occurs in one of these remote mountain canyons.
“These are very difficult places to access quickly, which makes cleaning up a spill more dangerous,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of anglers’ conservation group Trout Unlimited. “The biggest threat in a spill in any of these canyons besides access is going to be the fact that it’s not just oil, which has a lot of cleanup procedures, it’s waxy crude.”
The Uinta Basin’s oil is known as “waxy” crude because of its high degree of paraffin wax, which gives it the consistency of shoe polish at room temperature. It comes out of the ground at higher temperatures and is typically stored in heated tanks before being transported.
In recent months, the railway’s proponents have accused critics of spreading “misinformation” about spill risks, claiming that the waxy crude would be transported “as a solid, not a liquid,” lowering the likelihood that large volumes could be spilled in the event of a derailment.
But in an interview, Keith Heaton, director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, the public entity that has led the Uinta Basin Railway’s development to date, acknowledged that the project can’t guarantee that will always be the case.
“I don’t know that I’m guaranteeing anything,” Heaton said. “Our responsibility has been the planning and the permitting … I am not the expert on railroads, or petroleum, or any of those things.”
Relatively small amounts of the Uinta Basin’s waxy crude are currently being transported by tanker trucks to one of several rail terminals along the existing Union Pacific railroad in central Utah, then shipped by rail out of state. These shipments began in 2013 using “coil-heated and insulated tank cars,” according to the Utah Geological Survey. More recently, other Uinta Basin producers have shipped waxy crude in non-heated tank cars, allowing their contents to gradually solidify in transit before being reheated at their destination.
If the railway is built, whether or not Uinta Basin tank cars are heated and insulated will be up to the producers, rail operators and refineries that purchase the oil. No law or regulation would tie their hands, and the railway project’s 3,600-page environmental impact statement doesn’t address the issue at all.
“The economics of what happens with this after that is really up to the private side of the entity, and there’s a number of different entities involved in all of this, as there is with any industry or business,” Heaton said. “But yeah, we don’t have anything that addresses that in any way, shape or form.”
Even in cases where the oil is being shipped in non-insulated tank cars, outdoor temperatures will be a major factor. Heaton said that according to the SCIC’s industry partners, the waxy crude loaded into a tank car can — “depending on ambient temperatures” — cool to below its 110-degree melting point in about five hours.
Communities along the downline route have sought more clarity from railway proponents on a number of issues relating to the waxy crude’s transport, especially when it comes to how long it would take the 30,000 gallons of oil in each tank car to cool to a solid in the summertime heat.
“For us to feel some sort of assurance, just on that specific point … there ought to be scientific data and understanding of what that is,” Scherr said. “And that is only one of all the environmental risks that we’re concerned about.”
In the absence of any detailed answers, railway opponents are deeply skeptical of claims that the oil would quickly solidify.
“It’s a very convenient thing for them to say it’s going to be solid, but that’s not what the facts show,” said Deeda Seed, the Center for Biological Diversity’s senior Utah campaigner.
“It is going to remain liquid for some period of time, it’s not clear when or if it even becomes fully solid again,” she added. “It could very well be the case that this stuff is very liquid all the way through the Colorado River Corridor.”
After passing through the town of Kremmling and tiny, unincorporated Parshall, eastbound trains enter Byers Canyon in the Hot Sulphur State Wildlife Area, described by conservationists with the Colorado Birding Trail as prime nesting habitat for Swainson’s thrush, Wilson’s warbler, and the red-naped sapsucker.
Though no official statistics are kept, railroad enthusiasts identify Byers Canyon as the site of one of the sharpest “mainline” railroad curves in the country.
Like most other high-country canyons, it’s also been the site of multiple train wrecks, including a 22-car derailment in 1982 deemed to have been caused by excessive speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour. Klancke, who’s lived in Grand County for 52 years, remembers the aftermath.
“I saw train cars down a 200-foot embankment into the river,” he said. Two other train accidents have occurred in Byers Canyon since then, including a four-car derailment in 2005 caused by rockfall on the track.
In addition to predicting a spill of up to 30,000 gallons once every five years, the STB’s environmental impact statement evaluated other scenarios, including fires and explosions, that are less likely but still a potential risk.
“If the force of the accident were sufficient to ignite the crude oil, a fire could result that could remain confined to a single car or could surround other cars and cause them to rupture,” regulators said. “A fire that surrounds other cars could, in turn, cause a larger fire.”
Even if the waxy crude had solidified in transit, opponents note, a fire that ruptured one or more tank cars would heat it back up to a liquid state. If spilled and dispersed into the river, it would cool to a solid again — but the railway’s backers and their environmentalist foes have stark disagreements over what the cleanup process would look like from there.
In an op-ed earlier this month in the Deseret News, Heaton and Mark Michel of Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, the project’s private-equity developer, wrote flatly that waxy crude “does not present an environmental concern if there were a derailment.” In interviews, Heaton has repeatedly likened a spill of waxy crude to a spill of candles.
“It is like if you dropped a box of birthday candles in the kitchen sink,” he told Deseret News. “You just pick them up.”
Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, ridiculed that comparison.
“It’s just like picking up candles, if candles had warning labels on them that say they may cause organ failure and cancer, like the hazardous materials sheets for the two types of waxy crude they have in the Basin do,” Zukoski said. “It’s scary stuff.”
To date, reported spills of Utah’s waxy crude have largely been limited to tanker-truck crashes that released relatively small amounts of oil. But even those incidents complicate railway proponents’ characterization of the oil as easy to clean up.
In 2018, a truck hauling heated waxy crude from the Uinta Basin overturned on a bridge over the Price River near Carbonville, Utah, spilling roughly 4,000 gallons. Although fewer than 1,000 gallons were estimated to have spilled into the river itself, the crude oil “formed quarter-size to fist-sized waxy globules scattered along (a) three-mile stretch of river from the crash site,” Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality reported. A series of flash floods in the days after the crash knocked out containment booms and sent the oil even farther downstream, with “significant contamination” ending five miles from the crash, the DEQ said.
A train accident on the Colorado River could spill far more oil — a single rail tank car has a capacity of 30,000 gallons — into a river that runs much higher and faster. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that flash flooding in the week after the 2018 truck crash pushed the Price River’s flow to a high of 82.8 cubic feet per second. The median flow rate of the Colorado River near Gore Canyon is more than 20 times higher; at the east end of Glenwood Canyon, the median rate is nearly 75 times higher.
“Even if (the waxy crude) is some form of a solid, the river doesn’t care,” said Godes. “The river — it breaks granite boulders apart. It’s going to be able to break this down, break it apart and threaten the water supply for 40 million Americans.”
Exactly what impacts a major spill of hydrocarbons could have on the Colorado River is a question of vital importance to many of the communities that rely on it — but it’s another issue that the Surface Transportation Board’s environmental impact statement didn’t address at all.
In their downline analysis, STB regulators focused narrowly on the increased traffic and accident rates on the existing Union Pacific route. The majority of the potential environmental impacts their report examined — including water contamination, wildfire ignition, habitat degradation and much more — were only assessed along the 88 miles of new railroad proposed in Utah, excluding the hundreds of miles of existing track in Colorado that the vast majority of the oil-train traffic would travel.
That lack of analysis lies at the heart of the lawsuit that Eagle County filed against the STB last year, arguing that the board’s approval of the railway in December 2021 violated federal laws like the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The Board arbitrarily omitted the Union Pacific Line from its analysis of the Railway’s impacts to water resources, biological resources, historic and cultural resources, and land use and recreation,” the county’s attorneys wrote in a brief earlier this year. “It failed to provide any reasonable basis for analyzing the Railway’s operations on the proposed line but not on the Union Pacific Line.”
In their environmental review, STB regulators wrote dryly that oil-train accidents “could result in several different outcomes and associated consequences, depending on the force of the collision or derailment, the location of the accident, and the number of train cars involved.” Minor accidents, they said, would be much more likely than major catastrophes.
In the event of a disaster, however unlikely, the report offers little analysis of what might happen next — an omission that has left communities along the downline route scrambling to study past oil spills, assess the potential threat to water quality, develop emergency-response plans and seek assurances that cleanup and recovery costs would be covered. For towns and businesses that are dependent on healthy river ecosystems, such questions, though barely a footnote in the STB’s analysis, could be existential.
“How can you calculate truly the potential damages that could occur if you have a multi-car derailment in Glenwood Canyon?” asked Godes. “That would not only possibly devastate Glenwood’s economy for several years, and compromising drinking (water) and recreation facilities up and down the river — and that’s just in the immediate area, let alone the downstream impact to Grand Junction, and the Ute Water (Conservancy) District, and Moab, and even farther down.”
DE BEQUE, Colo. — As they head east out of the bottomlands of the Grand Valley, trains on the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor continue to follow the Colorado River in reverse, climbing gradually into Garfield County, where the rocky cliffs and sagebrush-spotted scrubland of the high desert begin to give way to the gentler slopes and lush alpine forests of the Rocky Mountains.
The railroad and Interstate 70 run in parallel through this narrow stretch of the Colorado River Valley for 60 miles, rarely separated by more than 100 yards as they pass industrial lots lined with frac tanks and truck-mounted drill rigs, and narrow strips of Bureau of Land Management acreage where sheep graze beside natural gas compressors and flare stacks.
The communities that the Central Corridor passes through between the Grand Valley and Glenwood Canyon have long been shaped by the boom-and-bust cycles of fossil fuel extraction, their economic fortunes rising and falling along with the viability of the energy sources buried underneath them — first coal, then oil, and now natural gas, extracted from a subterranean formation known as the Piceance Basin.
“We’re an oil and gas county,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said in an interview. “We have some of the largest natural gas reserves in the United States, and we do a lot of work to protect those revenues.”
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the far-right congresswoman who has made “drill, baby, drill” a signature agenda item alongside her denial of the 2020 election and Christian fundamentalism, calls Garfield County home, having run her gun-themed Shooters Grill restaurant in Rifle for almost a decade before bursting onto the political scene with a shock victory in the 3rd District Republican primary in 2020.
The Piceance gas boom, which peaked a decade ago, swelled county property-tax revenues and provided many families like the Boeberts with high-paying jobs. But a confluence of factors, topped by a global decline in natural gas prices, has gradually soured the basin’s outlook. Corporate oil giants like ExxonMobil and Occidental have largely divested from their holdings here, and Garfield County’s total gas production last year was only slightly more than half of 2013 levels.
It’s a lesson that’s been learned over the decades in the Piceance Basin: to sit atop vast reserves of valuable natural resources often isn’t enough on its own to bring a town or a region prosperity, especially in the wide-open spaces of the West. Whether it’s a lack of infrastructure, technological limitations, the pressures of global commodity markets or simply bad geological luck, obstacles to resource extraction have a way of cropping up.
And it’s a lesson that drillers and county governments in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin, a hundred miles west, have learned, too.
Although the two basins form a nearly continuous 200-mile-wide belt of underground hydrocarbon reservoirs straddling the Colorado-Utah border, producing oil and gas from many of the same layers of prehistoric rock, the Piceance and the Uinta have little to do with each other on the surface. Travel between them is possible only by circuitous highway routes that skirt north or south around the rugged Roan Plateau.
Soon, though, that could change in a big way. The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway, proposed by a partnership between industry and Utah county governments, would establish a direct rail connection between the basin and Garfield County for the first time in nearly a century.
The result would be one of the largest sustained efforts to transport crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S., sending hundreds of fully loaded tanker cars daily along the banks of the Colorado River through Garfield County — and many residents here aren’t happy about it.
“Nobody wants it,” Caitlin Carey, a Town Council member in New Castle, said in an interview. “It’s not a sound decision environmentally, it’s not a sound decision as far as safety is concerned in our small towns, and it’s not bringing any revenue to the area. So economically, environmentally and safety-wise, it doesn’t make any sense for it to come through this area.”
The rock that burns
Seven miles past the Garfield County line, eastbound trains on the Central Corridor route roll through Parachute, population 1,390. It’s the county’s smallest incorporated town, paling in comparison even to Battlement Mesa, an unincorporated retirement community on the other side of the Colorado River.
Together, they make a pair of quiet rural villages that have spread out over the ridges of the river valley — but within the lifetimes of many of their residents, officials at the highest levels of corporate America and Colorado state government planned for this to be the center of a new metropolis.
The same geological formations that produce natural gas in Garfield County and waxy crude oil in the Uinta Basin hold a much larger deposit of another hydrocarbon resource: oil shale. When subjected to subterranean heat and pressure over millions of years, the components of oil shale break down to form oil and gas, but it can also be mined and, with some difficulty, processed to produce synthetic fuels. Parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sit atop by far the largest oil shale deposit in the world; the amount of synthetic oil that could be produced from this deposit alone, according to some estimates, is more than double the entirety of the world’s conventional crude oil resources.
Parachute was the epicenter of the most ambitious attempt to unlock the potential of “the rock that burns,” launched by Exxon in 1980, after a decade of sky-high oil prices had spurred a nationwide search for alternative energy sources.
The multibillion-dollar Colony Project envisioned massive oil shale strip mines across Garfield and Rio Blanco counties and synthetic fuel plants that would produce a staggering 15 million barrels per day. Exxon began developing Battlement Mesa to house the project’s workforce as job-seekers flocked to the Western Slope from all around the country. Local governments prepared for more than 200,000 new residents to move into the narrow valley between Parachute and New Castle by 2010; Exxon’s own projections suggested it would be as many as 1.5 million people.
It was the most feverish energy boom in Colorado history, and it wasn’t long before things went bust. Within two years, oil prices began to fall again, and interest in the development of costly new synthetic fuels evaporated. Exxon abruptly pulled the plug on the Colony Project on May 2, 1982, known locally as “Black Sunday.” Thousands lost their jobs overnight, property values plummeted and hundreds of businesses went under in a crash that left its mark on Garfield County for decades.
“It’s a blow for the state and also a blow for the country, which needs alternate energy resources,” then-Gov. Dick Lamm, a cantankerous environmentalist who had nonetheless welcomed Exxon’s investment in Colorado, told The Denver Post shortly after Black Sunday. “This is part of the boom-and-bust cycle the West has been experiencing throughout its history.”
Utah has seen its own share of abortive attempts to mine oil shale, but lately, drilling interests in the Uinta Basin have set their sights on an ambitious effort to overcome a longstanding obstacle to development of the region’s conventional crude oil resources.
Although vast reserves were discovered there in 1948, the high degree of paraffin, or wax, in the Uinta Basin’s crude oil has kept a hard ceiling on its output. Though not as complicated as squeezing synthetic fuels out of oil shale, processing waxy crude comes with a unique set of challenges; because it congeals into a solid at room temperature, conventional pipelines aren’t an option, and it must be heated to be loaded in and out of tanker trucks and rail cars, or blended into thinner crudes in small enough proportions that it won’t cause a blockage.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a public body made up of the Uinta Basin’s local governments, has worked with industry groups for years to study potential solutions, including a costly insulated pipeline that would be able to transport the waxy crude at high temperatures, or a “cracking” process that would partially refine and liquify it within the basin.
“There’s only those two-lane highways. How do you get bulk commodities out? You can’t do it very effectively, you can’t do it very safely,” Keith Heaton, the SCIC’s executive director, said at the group’s monthly meeting in June. “Not to criticize the way it’s been done, but you need transportation.”
In 2019, the SCIC settled on an answer: a new railway that would connect the basin to the national rail network, allowing its waxy crude to be shipped to refineries out of state. The SCIC’s effort, in partnership with private equity firm Drexel Hamilton and the short-line railroad company Rio Grande Pacific, revived a state-led railway plan that was dropped in 2014 over concerns about high costs.
The railway’s proponents point to extensive research showing that railroads are a safer mode of transport for hazardous materials than trucks. Tanker trucks hauling waxy crude out of the Uinta Basin have been involvedinrepeatedaccidentsandspills since production began to rise in the region a decade ago.
During a two-year-long environmental review process, the Uinta Basin Railway’s backers told federal regulators that its construction could nearly quintuple the basin’s daily oil production to over 440,000 barrels per day — an output that would put the Uinta Basin on par with northeast Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, currently the largest oilfield in the Mountain West.
They estimated that 90% of the additional output — potentially over 400 tanker cars full of heated waxy crude per day — would be shipped by train on the Union Pacific’s eastbound route through western and central Colorado, before taking one of several routes out of the Denver metro area to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma or Louisiana.
In December 2021, the federal Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 to approve the new railway. Conservation groups and Colorado’s Eagle County have sued the STB over the decision, calling the board’s environmental review “fatally flawed,” and state leaders have asked at least four different federal agencies to bring a halt the project. But so far, President Joe Biden’s administration has shown no signs of hitting the brakes.
The railway partnership’s announcement earlier this year that it would seek $2 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, opened a new front in Colorado leaders’ battle to stop the project. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing to overturn the STB’s approval, estimates that the bonds’ lower financing costs would amount to an $80 million annual federal subsidy to the interests behind the railway.
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former petroleum geologist, has long been an ally of Colorado oil and gas producers, embittering many in his own party who accused him of siding with the industry throughout his time as governor, which overlapped with unprecedented boom times for drillers in the Piceance and Denver-Julesburg basins. Though he’s hardly been an outspoken opponent of the project itself, Hickenlooper in March joined other Colorado Democrats in objecting to the railway’s plans to seek financing through PABs.
“While we support boosting domestic energy production for the benefit of American consumers and our allies abroad, private-sector investments should be based on consumer demand where they pertain to mature technologies with existing, robust markets,” Hickenlooper and his colleagues wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “There is no precedent for using PABs to fund a rail project solely to transport crude oil.”
A scenic trip to a refinery in Louisiana’
The signs for Rulison, seven miles east of Parachute, direct passersby to a sparse patchwork of small farms and pastures at the foot of the Grand Mesa to the south.
It was at a spot hidden high on one of these hills where, in August 1969, men in hard hats carefully lowered a long, thin canister down a hole drilled a mile and a half deep into the Earth, penetrating a thick underground rock layer that kept a large reserve of natural gas trapped further below.
A few weeks later, crews triggered the device inside the canister: a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb.
The blast from “Project Rulison” toppled chimneys and cracked foundations in Rifle and Parachute, and shook the ground as far away as Golden. It was one of the few instances ever in which the federal government, in partnership with the oil and gas industry, tried fracking with nukes. The method was soon abandoned, because — surprise, surprise — the gas produced as a result of the explosions proved too radioactive to be marketable.
These days, the thing most likely to rattle windows in the Colorado River Valley is freight traffic on the railroad, which passes directly through almost all of Garfield County’s towns — small communities of a few thousand people each, where tracks were laid almost a century and a half ago, along main streets and town squares. In many places, trains pass just yards away from homes and businesses, often at high speeds.
Even when the fracking isn’t being done with nuclear bombs, the fossil fuel economy brings with it benefits and risks — and rarely, if ever, are they evenly distributed. In the case of the Uinta Basin oil trains, many of the risks of increased production would be shouldered by communities in this valley, while almost all of the benefits would accrue to producers, mineral owners and county governments a hundred miles away in Utah.
“This train is not bringing anything to this area,” Carey said. “It’s not taking crude from Garfield County, or Mesa County, or Moffat County. It’s taking Utah crude on a scenic trip to a refinery in Louisiana.”
But the oil and gas industry wields power here, and the jobs and flush bank accounts that the gas boom provided remain an important part of the county’s economy and self-image. And in a country where local politics have become increasingly nationalized, small-town safety concerns aren’t the only thing being debated.
Though Boebert has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration over the February chemical spill caused by a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, she has remained silent on a proposal that could drastically increase the amount of hazardous materials shipped by rail through the heart of her district. A Boebert spokesperson declined to comment on the record regarding her position on the Uinta Basin Railway.
“We’ve had citizens’ comments and so forth, but we haven’t spent time on it, and I don’t think it’s our business to spend time on it,” Jankovsky said. “It seems like people are making a big deal out of something that’s not such a big deal.”
In March, Garfield’s Board of County Commissioners brushed aside concerns about the oil trains. Commissioner Mike Samson faulted local opponents for “fear-mongering” and railed against what he called the “disaster” of the Biden administration’s energy policy. The response stunned New Castle residents and officials who’d come to the commission with their concerns.
“We have the most residents in close proximity to the rail line,” Carey said.
“The problem isn’t oil and gas altogether,” she added. “The problem is that this is a high-speed train coming through with a payload that is toxic in some situations, and deadly in others. That shouldn’t be something that is politicized.”
Awaiting the ‘iron horse’
Though its gold-rush days are the stuff of legend, it was the silver boom that followed that did more to make Colorado what it is today.
During the 1880s, settlements promising the next silver bonanza sprang up all over the mountains, especially after the Ute people were dispossessed of their lands on the Western Slope. With each new boomtown — Leadville, Aspen, Silverton, Ouray, Creede — Colorado railroad companies raced to be the first to connect them with the outside world. Backed by enterprising local mine owners or Eastern financiers, competing railroads warred over trackage rights and frantically added new branches and spurs to their “mainline” systems, grading out the canyon trails and mountain passes that would become permanent features of the state’s transportation infrastructure.
After completing its narrow-gauge line through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City in 1883, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway Company battled the newly founded Colorado Midland Railway to build the first route into the Roaring Fork Valley’s booming Aspen mining district. While the Midland struggled with a more direct route over the mountains from Leadville, the Denver & Rio Grande turned north, laying the first-ever tracks along the old burro trails of the central Colorado River Valley, then turned south again at Glenwood Springs to follow the course of the Roaring Fork.
When the Denver & Rio Grande reached Aspen three months ahead of its rival, the official celebrations lasted a week. Six hundred rail workers were treated to a giant barbecue, and the first train to arrive, on Nov. 1, 1887, carried Gov. Alva Adams and U.S. Sen. Henry Teller as passengers, among other dignitaries.
“Our mines have been practically idle, waiting the coming of the iron horse,” Aspen Mayor Herbert Harding said in a welcoming address. “We are now entering upon an era of prosperity that will be unprecedented in our history.” (In fact, within six years the silver boom would be over for good, brought to an end by the Panic of 1893 and repeal of federal silver-coinage policies.)
But the railroads were more than just highways for heavy industry, and even for towns that weren’t founded on mining, the arrival of the iron horse was a signal event. A month before tracklayers from the Denver & Rio Grande reached Aspen, their arrival in the resort community of Glenwood Springs was greeted with fireworks, a parade and a lavish banquet at the Hotel Glenwood. It was the same a few years later in New Castle, Rifle and other small settlements in the Colorado River Valley, as a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande laid track to connect its Aspen Branch to Grand Junction, completing the right-of-way that trains still travel today between the state line and the east end of Glenwood Canyon.
Even in the golden age of railroading, passenger service was a loss leader for most railroad companies, subsidized by the more lucrative business of hauling freight, said Paul Hammond, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.
“By the late 19th century, freight traffic is what’s making the money,” Hammond said. “Passenger travel is something that is offered as a public good, and as a marketing awareness tool.”
But especially in parts of western Colorado where road and highway networks were slow to develop, railroads became a vital service connecting towns across rugged terrain, and stayed that way for generations.
In 1914, trains on the Denver & Rio Grande made 16 stops between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs. From Main Street in New Castle, a passenger could step onto a train and step off a short while later onto the Main Street of every town that still exists in the valley today, and many that don’t: Akin, Morris, Lacy, Ives, Chacra. For most of the first half of the 20th century, there were two local Denver & Rio Grande passenger trains each way daily.
“You could go down (to Glenwood Springs) in the morning and come back in the evening,” an old-timer told journalist Conrad Schrader in 1996. The Denver & Rio Grande’s long-haul California Zephyr began operations in 1949, and continued as the country’s last independent intercity passenger line until 1983.
After merging with the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1980s, the Denver & Rio Grande was acquired by the Union Pacific in 1996. But affection for the “Action Road” lives on at the Colorado Railroad Museum, which houses some of its iconic locomotives and rolling stock, and in a dedicated community of local “railfans” who help keep its history alive.
Carl Smith, a third-generation railroader whose father and grandfather worked on the Denver & Rio Grande, is no railfan — “I like trains on payday,” he said — but he’s seen first-hand the effects of rail industry consolidation in Colorado.
“The local supervisors, managers, officials, they had connections to the community,” said Smith, the Colorado legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART. “Now it’s just turned into this large beast, and nobody even knows who the person to call is in case of emergency.”
In Rifle, 15 miles east on the interstate from Parachute, more than 200 businesses went under in the 18 months after Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Project. By the time the Piceance Basin’s gas boom began to revive the region’s economy in the mid-2000s, the politics of oil and gas had been irrevocably changed.
In 1988, NASA physicist James Hansen testified to Congress that a growing body of evidence corroborated what some scientists had theorized as early as the 19th century: The Earth’s climate was being dangerously warmed by human activity, mostly through the combustion of fossil fuels. By 2007, the fourth in a series of exhaustive scientific reports commissioned by a United Nations panel called the evidence for global warming “unequivocal” and human activity the “very likely” cause.
A generation earlier, it hadn’t been inconceivable for Lamm and others in America’s nascent environmentalist movement to offer qualified support for Exxon’s oil-shale gambit and its promise of a more efficient, more abundant source of energy for the nation. But the planetary scale of the threat posed by climate change, and the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has made a transition away from fossil fuels the top priority for environmental activists around the world.
In Colorado, alarm over climate change has grown over the course of a two-decade “megadrought” more severe than any dry spell the Southwest has experienced in at least 1,200 years, putting stress on water supplies and greatly increasing wildfire risk. All of the 20 largest wildfires in Colorado history have occurred since 2001, and the three largest on record burned a combined 540,000 acres during a long, destructive fire season across the state in 2020.
At the same time, oil and gas production exploded in Colorado thanks to advances in drilling technology; statewide crude oil production increased tenfold between 2000 and 2019, while natural gas output more than doubled. Throughout the 2010s, state officials struggled to keep the peace between outraged anti-fracking activists and the industry’s emboldened political allies. Though Gov. Jared Polis expressed hopes for an end to “the oil and gas wars” when he signed a law strengthening health and safety protections in 2019, tensions between activists and drillers remain high.
Few politicians have championed Colorado’s oil and gas industry more aggressively than Boebert, a far-right activist who unseated former U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton with an upset victory in the 3rd District Republican primary in 2020.
Boebert herself once worked for a pipeline company, and her husband, Jayson, from whom she recently filed for divorce, is a 20-year veteran of Garfield County’s natural gas industry. He collected nearly $1 million in consulting fees from gas driller Terra Energy Partners in 2019 and 2020. Boebert’s former restaurant, the gun-themed Shooters Grill, opened in downtown Rifle in 2013, on the same block where so many businesses had closed their doors in Black Sunday’s wake — a symbol of both the town’s economic recovery and its increasingly conservative political bent.
In Congress, Boebert has been one of the Biden administration’s most outspoken critics on energy policy. The first bill she introduced in the House of Representatives sought to force the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and she made headlines last year when she attended the State of the Union wearing a shawl emblazoned with the words “Drill Baby Drill.”
“These radicals have no regard for jobs, our economy or responsible energy production and will mount a full-court press to force their socialist agenda down our throats,” she wrote shortly after Biden’s election. That’s an attitude shared by many residents and local officials in oil- and gas-producing regions in Colorado and Utah, even if it’s not always expressed in such confrontational terms.
“Eastern Utah has always relied on the energy sector as the pillar of our economy, and it’s been very good to us,” Heaton, the director of the SCIC, said in June. “(That’s) being taken away. We all know that — and it’s not a market decision, it’s not a decision we’re making. They’re being dictated by government policy at a higher level.”
Boebert has been especially critical of environmental activists’ successful efforts to block the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a proposal to build a 234-mile natural-gas pipeline and export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. The project was championed by Piceance Basin gas drillers who sought to open up new markets for their product overseas, but it was denied key permits by Oregon state officials who cited concerns over its climate and water-quality impacts.
Despite her record of opposition to environmental and safety regulations, however, Boebert has joined other Republicans in harshly criticizing the Biden administration over railroad accidents like the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine. In April, Boebert wrote that Buttigieg “can’t seem to fix the near-constant train derailments in our country,” and praised former Fox News host Tucker Carlson for covering the incident after “the mainstream media has given up discussing” it.
Along with other right-wing commentators, Carlson spoke of the East Palestine derailment in dark, conspiracist terms, accusing Biden of intentionally neglecting an area in rural Ohio that is “overwhelmingly white and politically conservative.” The Anti-Defamation League also said in the wake of the derailment that white-supremacist groups were “co-opting the tragedy … to advance their claims that the political system is in place to disadvantage and overlook white people.”
But even amid her persistent criticism of Biden over East Palestine, and even as other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have lodged repeated protests with the Biden administration over the Uinta Basin Railway, Boebert has declined to comment publicly on the project to date.
An estimated 550 million gallons of various hazardous materials were shipped by rail through Mesa County, directly to Garfield County’s southwest, in 2021, according to officials there. Based on that figure, the crude oil shipped through Colorado from the Uinta Basin Railway would cause as much as a tenfold increase in the volume of hazardous materials traveling through Boebert’s district.
Local officials in Garfield County say they’ve reached out to Boebert’s office to no avail. Some say the congresswoman’s silence is as much as they can realistically hope for.
“If a position of neutrality, or no position, is the best we’re going to get, I don’t know that that’s a poor outcome,” said Jonathan Godes, a City Council member and former mayor of Glenwood Springs.
‘God and the railroad’
Today, the only time many people in Garfield County think about the railroad is when something goes terribly wrong.
One such day came in November in New Castle, 14 miles east of Rifle, when 47-year-old Lisa Detweiler was struck and killed by a passing freight train near a grade crossing at Kamm Avenue, just south of Main Street. Detweiler was a longtime employee of the Garfield County library system, and her loss was deeply felt in this town of just under 5,000 residents.
“She was my son’s favorite librarian. A lot of the kids had a hard time with it,” said Carey, the New Castle council member. “It was devastating for our town, it was devastating for our library community. It has been an eye-opener.”
Union Pacific referred questions about the incident to the New Castle Police Department. But a spokesperson for that department said the investigation into Detweiler’s death was handled by Union Pacific Police Department, a private law-enforcement agency that “has primary jurisdiction over crimes committed against the railroad,” according to Union Pacific’s website. Union Pacific did not respond to follow-up questions about their investigation.
Even if not a single drop of Uinta Basin oil ever spills in Colorado, such a large increase in freight traffic — as many as five fully loaded eastbound trains per day, with five empty trains returning — worries residents in towns like New Castle, where trains pass at high speeds just a few yards from a playground, an elementary school and the backyards of dozens of homes.
With support from the Garfield County commissioners, New Castle has petitioned Union Pacific to require lower train speeds through town. But communities here have grown accustomed to making such requests of the Omaha-based corporate giant, only to be ignored or dismissed.
In response to an inquiry about the speed-reduction request, a Union Pacific spokesperson wrote simply, “We abide by the Federal Railroad Administration’s speed limits.”
“What’s the difference between God and the railroad?” Godes asked. “God might answer your prayers.”
As recently as 1980, the Denver & Rio Grande was one of 40 so-called Class I railroads operating in the U.S., but a wave of deregulation and consolidation has reduced that number to just seven. Just two companies, Union Pacific and BNSF, control virtually all major freight routes west of the Mississippi River, and many towns along those routes say community relations have deteriorated as railroads face investor pressure to cut costs and maximize profits.
“When we have some kind of project, whether it be a stormwater project or something that possibly could impact their operations, it is incredibly time-consuming and difficult to even get somebody to respond to you,” Godes said.
“They are so insular, because of the legal protections that we have granted them over the centuries, that they just don’t have to care about anything,” he added. “And so they don’t.”
Amtrak, which took over the operation of the California Zephyr passenger line in 1983, still serves Glenwood Springs’ historic train station once each way daily — its only stop between Grand Junction and Granby. Beginning in 2021, the Rocky Mountaineer, a Vancouver-based luxury passenger line operating a scenic three-day rail trip between Denver and Moab, also makes several stops in Glenwood Springs each week.
But for most towns in the Colorado River Valley, the railroad tracks that once did so much to connect communities to each other, and to the outside world, are now little more than a nuisance at best, and a deadly hazard at worst.
“They’re not stopping in New Castle. We don’t have a depot anymore. Silt doesn’t have one, Rifle doesn’t have one,” said Carey. “If (the railroad) was moving people, if it was creating opportunity for transit in the area, that would be a really different conversation.”
State Sen. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, is among the only GOP elected officials at the state level to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway, joining other Western Slope lawmakers in writing to federal officials in March to express their “grave” concerns. Will did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“We strongly urge you and your partners in the federal government to conduct a more thorough risk analysis in light of recent events and our pressing concerns regarding water supply and wildfire,” the lawmakers wrote to Buttigieg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While we understand and support the desire to increase domestic energy supply, the potential negative impacts of this project far outweigh any economic benefit.”
New Castle, like so many other Western Slope communities, started as a boomtown. The soft bituminous coal mined from the mountainsides nearby was prized as a fuel for silver smelters — and steam locomotives.
But it’s a town that knows better than most the long-term risks of such frenzied heavy-industrial activity. A series of fires and explosions rocked New Castle’s coal mining industry in the 1890s, and more than a dozen underground fires in the area have been smoldering for over a century now. Investigators said that one such blaze caused the 2002 Coal Seam Fire that destroyed 30 homes in New Castle, and flare-ups from others still occasionally send columns of smoke into the skies overhead.
State Sen. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, is among the only GOP elected officials at the state level to voice opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway, joining other Western Slope lawmakers in writing to federal officials in March to express their “grave” concerns. Will did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“We strongly urge you and your partners in the federal government to conduct a more thorough risk analysis in light of recent events and our pressing concerns regarding water supply and wildfire,” the lawmakers wrote to Buttigieg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While we understand and support the desire to increase domestic energy supply, the potential negative impacts of this project far outweigh any economic benefit.”
New Castle, like so many other Western Slope communities, started as a boomtown. The soft bituminous coal mined from the mountainsides nearby was prized as a fuel for silver smelters — and steam locomotives.
But it’s a town that knows better than most the long-term risks of such frenzied heavy-industrial activity. A series of fires and explosions rocked New Castle’s coal mining industry in the 1890s, and more than a dozen underground fires in the area have been smoldering for over a century now. Investigators said that one such blaze caused the 2002 Coal Seam Fire that destroyed 30 homes in New Castle, and flare-ups from others still occasionally send columns of smoke into the skies overhead.
Five miles due south of the point where Interstate 70 crosses the Colorado-Utah border, a maze of slickrock washes and desert bunchgrass descends into a broad canyon carved out of the sandstone by the Colorado River.
Here, on the high northern banks of a river that supplies water to 40 million people across the Southwest, there is no photogenic sign bidding visitors “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” Campers and mountain bikers can crisscross the border without ever realizing it. Most of the interstate traffic consists of a steady flow of rafters and kayakers floating into Utah through Ruby Canyon, a 25-mile segment of the Colorado River treasured by local guides for its family-friendly flatwater conditions and the billion-year-old rock layers it shares with some of the most scenic stretches of the Grand Canyon, 400 miles downriver.
On a clear, hot morning in mid-May, the only sounds that could be heard in this remote place were the faint rush of a river surging with spring snowmelt, a chorus of birds singing in the sagebrush and juniper trees, and the occasional shout of rafters on the river below.
Then a low rumbling began.
For a minute or so, the noise grew louder and louder, amplified almost to a roar by the canyon walls overhead. Many of the daytrippers paddling leisurely at the waterline probably hadn’t yet noticed the train tracks winding along the elevated riverbank — but now the powerful diesel engines of the Union Pacific locomotive brought it charging around a bend, hauling a mile-long train of fully loaded coal cars behind it.
These tracks have run through Ruby Canyon for well over a century, but traffic has lessened over time. These days, fewer than one train per day on average departs Colorado’s largest remaining coal mine, the West Elk Mine in Gunnison County, bound for points west. They’re joined by irregular assorted freight traffic, also averaging roughly one train per day, and Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger line, which offers service once daily in either direction on its route between San Francisco and Chicago.
Soon, however, freight traffic on this railroad could be more than quadrupled, federal regulators estimate, by the construction of a new railway extension in a remote area of eastern Utah, about 100 miles northwest of this spot along the border. Nearly all of the increase would be made up of what alarmed environmentalists have taken to calling “bomb trains” full of combustible fossil fuels.
The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway would connect Utah’s largest oil field to the national rail network, allowing drillers there to dramatically ramp up production and transport up to 300,000 barrels of oil per day to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Five hundred tankers full of heated waxy crude oil could depart the Uinta Basin daily, and while they could take several possible paths to the Gulf Coast, all eastbound routes run directly through Ruby Canyon, central Colorado and the Denver metro area.
The railway project, years in the planning and backed by a public-private partnership between Utah county governments and industry, needs billions of dollars in financing before it can become a reality. But it has already secured key permits from President Joe Biden’s administration and has signaled it will soon apply for special tax-exempt infrastructure bonds that must be approved by the Department of Transportation.
The Uinta Basin Railway would be the largest new railroad project built from scratch in the United States since the 1970s. If it’s built, it will be built not to move people — as many passenger-rail advocates renewed their hopes for in the wake of an Amtrak-loving Democrat’s election to the White House in 2020 — but to feed the beast of the global fossil fuel economy, the dominant contributor to human-caused climate change.
Greenlighting the railroad would be the latest — and perhaps the largest — in series of energy-development moves by Biden’s administration that run counter to its stated climate goals.
As an 88-mile new right-of-way purpose-built to haul Uinta Basin crude, the project would rank among the most ambitious sustained efforts to transport oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S. It could singlehandedly more than double the average of around 268,000 barrels per day that were shipped by rail across the entire country last year and increase crude oil shipments originating in a five-state Rocky Mountain region by nearly 1,500%, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The increased production in the Uinta Basin would result in as much as 53 million additional tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually — the equivalent of opening more than 14 new coal-fired power plants, and double the projected climate impact of the highly controversial Willow Project in Alaska.
“At some point, one would hope that the Biden administration would live up to its soaring rhetoric about what to do about climate change,” said Ted Zukoski, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Because this really just makes a mockery of those commitments.”
The partnership behind the railway says it “brings hope and promise to rural, eastern Utah, its counties and the citizens in neighboring states,” arguing that rail shipment of hazardous materials is “nothing new” and pointing to data showing that trains are a safer mode of transport than trucks. Backers have also downplayed climate concerns, suggesting that compared to other types of crude oil, more of the Uinta Basin’s waxy crude would be used for lubricants and other industrial applications, rather than as fuel.
But the project has drawn opposition from across the political spectrum in Colorado, including from Republican state lawmakers and county commissioners. Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a moderate who has supported drilling on public lands and export infrastructure for Colorado’s natural gas industry, said earlier this year that the project’s approval “would be a black mark on the president’s environmental record.”
With the exception of a small portion that could be routed to the Pacific Northwest or the Midwest, federal regulators predict that nearly all of the increased production would be bound for refineries along the Gulf Coast, including a region in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, where residents are exposed to drastically elevated health risks from the air pollution emitted by more than 200 refineries and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River. Once the oil is refined into gasoline, diesel or other fuels, it could be shipped all over the world, and after being combusted its carbon molecules will drift high into the atmosphere, helping to trap the sun’s heat and cause global temperatures to rise.
But long before all that, the Uinta Basin’s oil will have to make the 300-mile journey through some of the most densely populated and environmentally fragile places in Colorado.
‘When, not if’
Within just a few short years, the Uinta Basin Railway’s construction could result in as many as five fully loaded, two-mile-long oil trains crossing into Colorado through the remote Ruby Canyon every day. Here, on the first leg of their journey through the Centennial State, hugging the north bank of the Colorado River, they will be surrounded on all sides by more than 200,000 acres of protected public lands, including the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness just across the river, where not even mountain bikes are allowed.
But Ruby Canyon, cherished though it is, hardly tops the list of places that Coloradans living along the oil trains’ path are most concerned about.
From there, the trains will travel the length of the Grand Valley, one of the state’s leading agricultural centers, along an exposed road in the heart of Palisade orchard country, where a rail car recently caught fire. They will wind through the narrow Glenwood Canyon, scarred in recent years by devastating wildfires and mudslides, where conditions bedeviled structural engineers for so long that a 12-mile section of I-70 built into its cliffs became in 1992 the last and most expensive segment of the federal highway system to be completed.
On their eastbound route to Denver over the Rocky Mountains, the oil trains will pass through 16 different Colorado municipalities, 25 water districts and four national forests. They will gain and drop thousands of feet in elevation and spend mile after mile of their journey in areas not accessible by any road. They will travel along hundred-foot cliff edges, around one of the tightest mainline railroad curves in the country, beside two of its most endangered rivers, through a six-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide, and down a watershed that collects into a vital reservoir for the 1.5 million customers of the Denver Water system.
“It threatens water supplies and the environment, should it spill,” said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, an anglers’ conservation group. “We have more of an attitude of when it spills, not if it spills.”
That attitude is backed up by data from federal regulators, who estimated in a “downline analysis” that Uinta Basin oil trains could, on average, cause a rail accident between Kyune, Utah, and Denver once every 13 months. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, regulators predict, will occur roughly once every five years.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a public body made up of Utah county governments, first sought approval for the railway’s construction in 2019. The Uinta Basin Railway is a “preliminary public-private partnership” between the SCIC, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, a small private rail operator based in Texas. The partnership has said it’s “committed to minimizing and mitigating environmental impacts where possible,” and will comply with “all federal, state, and local environmental regulations.”
The Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the project, after the agency’s Office of Environmental Analysis wrote that it “does not expect that downline impacts would be significant.”
But Colorado’s Eagle County has joined environmental groups in suing to overturn the STB’s decision, which it says was based on a faulty and incomplete environmental review. In a legal brief supporting the suit, attorneys representing a group of 10 Colorado city and county governments called the federal government’s analysis “fatally flawed” and argued that its predicted accident rates — alarming as they already are to many communities along the route — understate the true risk level.