Proposed oil railway would chew up 10,000 acres of Uinta Basin habitat

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Pump jacks pull up hydrocarbons in the Three Rivers oil field southwest of Vernal, near Pelican Lake and the Green River, pictured on June 14, 2019. An environmental review of a proposed $1.4 billion oil railway in the Uinta Basin says it would impact wildlife habitat.

A proposed oil-hauling railroad would degrade up to 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat in northeastern Utah, potentially disrupting migration corridors and ruining wetlands, according to a new draft environmental review.

The federal Surface Transportation Board is reviewing the Uinta Basin Railway, proposed by a group of energy-producing Utah counties that hopes to connect the state’s oil patch to the national rail network. Such a transportation conduit would take hundreds of tanker trucks off Utah highways, but it would result in unavoidable, permanent and significant impacts, according the 580-page Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, released last week.

“This oil railway will inflict grave damage on rural communities, wildlife and water and it should never be built,” said Wendy Park, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Polluting oil companies want to ramp up fracking and poison Utah’s air and water, using millions of dollars in public money that’s supposed to fund hospitals, schools and other public services,” Park said. “The latest report shows that the Uinta Basin Railway isn’t just a cruel boondoggle, it would also be incredibly harmful to people and animals.”

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition is proposing the rail, expected to cost $1.4 billion, but it would be financed and operated by private firms as a “common carrier,” meaning it would be open to any freight haulers. Rio Grande Pacific Corp. would operate the line and the Ute Indian Tribe, which holds extensive oil and gas resources in the basin, is expected to become an equity partner, according to the EIS.

Funding the project’s planning are controversial grants totaling $28 million from the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund, which distributes money derived from federal mineral royalties to local governments impacted by mining and drilling.

State leaders support the project because of its potential to create rural jobs in Utah and promote economic development.

In their “scoping” comments submitted as the EIS was getting started in June of last year, state officials said access to rail would greatly increase the amount of revenue generated from oil and gas resources managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. Not only would a rail connection enable the basin to triple its production, but the basin’s waxy crude would be worth more because it would have access to new markets.

More production and higher sales prices mean more revenue into the state’s schools trust fund, according to comments submitted by Kathleen Clarke, who heads Utah’s public lands policy office.

“It is critical that the project be given a chance to succeed,” she wrote. “The lack of rail means SITLA may never actually monetize its resources to the fullest capability with production scale.”

In 2018, according to her comments, oil production on state trust lands generated $11 million in revenue, a sum that will at least double if the rail comes online.

While the project’s goal is to increase oil production, the environmental review does not analyze impacts associated with increased drilling in the Uinta Basin, whose air quality often exceeds federal standards for ozone thanks to oil and gas activity. Nor does it study the climate impact, Park complained.

“It focuses on just the immediate impact of developing the rail and rail operations. It doesn’t really acknowledge an increase in oil production,” Park said. “That is extremely misleading.”

The public has until Dec. 14 to comment on the EIS, which analyzed three potential routes. Dropped from the review was the longer, but less rugged route east out of the basin to Craig, Colo., originally proposed by the seven-county group.

The potential alignments — one through Indian Canyon and the other through Wells Draw, 81 and 103 miles in length, respectively — both start at Leland Bench, pass through a second loading terminal near Myton and end in Price Canyon near Kyune, where they would tie into the Union Pacific tracks.

The EIS released Friday unveiled a new alternative, dubbed Whitmore Park, essentially a revised version of the Indian Canyon route, redrawn to avoid federal sage grouse habitat in two places and a residential area, resulting in 7 additional miles of track. This alignment is now the one recommended by the Surface Transportation Board, even though some of its impacts are greater.

The Whitmore Park alternative has 443 stream crossings, affecting 61 miles of streams.

With fewer stream crossings, the Indian Canyon route would pass through a rural community known as Argyle Canyon, where there would be 13 at-grade rail crossings. The new alternative loops to the southeast. Between 3.7 and 10.5 trains would travel the line each day on average.

“It lessens the impact to us, but we still have the train coming through our canyon several times a day,” said Darrell Fordham, a project critic who helped form the Argyle Wilderness Preservation Alliance to fight it.

While affecting the fewest number of residences, the Whitmore Park alternative crosses mostly private land, primarily affecting large property owners and ranching operations, according to the EIS.

“The railway will cut through roadless areas designated by the Forest Service,” Park said. “This is an area that is used by lots of wildlife, such as pronghorn [and] mule deer.” Some of the area has been designated as crucial habitat by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, she noted, “meaning that this is habitat that this species need to survive because there isn’t any alternative habitat for them.”

Earlier this year, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups sued the Community Impact Fund, seeking to reverse its decision to award grants for the rail project. Under state and federal law, these funds must go toward public projects that help communities deal with harms from mineral development on federal public lands, the groups argued in the suit underway in 3rd District Court. They are not intended to subsidize further development.

So far, the infrastructure coalition has spent $19 million toward the rail project.

Rail proponents believe the project’s benefits would outweigh its negative impacts by getting a parade of trucks off the highways to the Salt Lake City refineries and enlarging the revenue stream that supports local government and schools around the state.