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Wells to rails: Utah may build $2 billion line to ship oil

Published June 13, 2014 10:21 pm

Energy • Train route would stretch from Uinta Basin to Price.
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After studying 26 possible routes for a rail line to transport crude oil from the Uinta Basin, the Utah Department of Transportation revealed Friday that only one is feasible.

That is a 100-mile route southwest to Price, roughly along U.S. 191, which would require a 10-mile tunnel through mountains. It could connect with national rail lines near Price, and take oil to Wasatch Front refineries or anywhere else in the nation to expand Utah energy markets.

But it comes with a huge price tag: roughly $2 billion, said John Thomas, UDOT project manager for the Uinta Basin rail environmental impact statement (EIS) process.

An earlier state study said that without the rail route or alternatives such as new pipelines or freeways, $30 billion worth of oil and gas may remain undeveloped in the basin during the next 30 years because of transportation constraints. It said that could cost Utah's economy $10 billion and prevent creation of nearly 27,000 jobs.

The Utah Transportation Commission received the new rail assessment Friday at a meeting in Roosevelt. UDOT told the commission it plans now to begin a formal EIS to further evaluate that route — and potentially avoid derailing an expanded Uinta oil boom.

UDOT hopes to have a draft EIS in 2016 and a final version in 2017.

Thomas said UDOT just completed an initial feasibility study — funded by the Legislature — of 26 alternatives that included following U.S. 40 directly west to the Wasatch Front, going north through Wyoming or even east through Colorado.

"After evaluating 4,100 miles of alignments with engineering feasibility and environmental impacts, there is one corridor that appears to be feasible," Thomas said. "This would essentially go down Indian Canyon along U.S. 191 south from Duchesne to U.S. 6" near Price.

By connecting to national rails there, he said, oil could go not only go to the Wasatch Front but also to the West Coast or east to different markets.

"It is about a 100-mile long corridor, with a 10-mile tunnel to go under Indian Pass" just north of U.S. 6, Thomas explained. National averages predict a construction cost of $10 million per mile for the main line, plus $100 million a mile for the tunnel — for a rough estimate of $2 billion overall.

Thomas said as UDOT now begins the formal EIS, the department will "conduct community outreach and outreach to stakeholders" to discuss the route. He said the federal Surface Transportation Board would need to issue permits for the rail project to be built.

The EIS will help show, among other things, how the rail line could affect traffic on U.S. 40, which now has a steady stream of tanker trucks 24 hours a day to Wasatch Front refineries.

Thomas said a rail line may mean trucks would "be more internally focused to the basin," merely transporting oil from wells to rails.

ldavidson@sltrib.com