Forest Service OKs right of way for Utah’s oil railway

Environmentalists see the decision as a betrayal of the Biden administration’s pledge to reduce the nation’s reliance on the fossil fuels implicated in climate change.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Since 2014, the Price River Terminal in Wellington, pictured on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, has received Uinta Basin crude by truck and loaded it onto rail cars bound for out-of-state markets.

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The U.S. Forest Service has decided to grant a right-of-way to seven Utah counties that would allow the construction of a controversial railroad to connect the Uinta Basin oil patch with the national rail network.

Subject to a 45-day objection period before becoming final, the decision approves a request by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition to build and operate the crude-hauling railroad on 12 miles of Ashley National Forest through Indian Canyon.

The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway, estimated to cost $3 billion, would run west from two oil-loading terminals at Myton and Leland Bench, joining the Union Pacific tracks at Kyune at the head of Price Canyon. Uintah and Duchesne counties hope the project will enable a four-fold increase in the basin’s output, up to 350,000 barrels a day.

The decision, signed by Forest Supervisor Susan Eickhoff and to be posted Wednesday, upset environmentalists who see it as a betrayal of the Biden administration’s pledge to reduce the nation’s reliance on the fossil fuels implicated in climate change.

The decision makes no reference to greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the increased oil production the railroad would facilitate.

“We estimate conservatively 53 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted a year. And there’s no accounting for that, yet in January, the Biden administration’s executive order on climate change talked about an all-of-government approach,” said Deeda Seed, a Salt Lake City-based organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Here’s an agency, the Forest Service, that could have… shut down a project that’s going to dramatically increase carbon emissions.”

Utah officials have long sought ways to move oil out of the Uinta Basin, whose production can only be shipped by truck. Because this oil’s waxy properties cause it to harden as it cools, this product largely winds up at nearby Salt Lake City refineries, which enjoy a steep pricing discount and can process only about 90,000 barrels a day.

“The Uinta Basin region is rich in natural resources including hydrocarbons, phosphates, and other minerals critical to America’s economy — but the development of these resources has long been impaired by the lack of quality freight transportation infrastructure,” wrote Gov. Spencer Cox and other top elected leaders to the federal Surface Transportation Board in an Aug. 12 letter. “The socioeconomic benefits of the proposed railway go beyond the transport of hydrocarbons out of the Uinta Basin to national markets. The railway will help the Uinta Basin diversify its economy.”

The Uinta Basin Railway is the latest in a string of proposals that have previously failed to launch because of high costs and technical hurdles. A final decision is in the hands of the federal Surface Transportation Board, which recently completed an environmental impact statement identifying a preferred alignment, known as Whitmore Park.

The five-member board on Jan. 5 issued a favorable opinion for the project but Chairman Martin Oberman issued a strongly worded dissenting opinion raising doubts about the railway’s long-term need and financial viability.

In addition to shipping oil out, the coalition expects to use the railway to ship in special sand used in fracking operations. Between three and 10 trains, including unloaded ones, would travel the single-track line each day.

The coalition does not expect the train would divert any of the existing truck traffic that currently ferries oil from the basin to Salt Lake City in the short term.

“The Coalition expects that shippers could also use the proposed rail line to transport various heavy and bulk commodities found in the Basin, such as soda ash, phosphate, natural gas, oil shale, gilsonite, natural asphalt, limestone, bentonite, heavy clay, aggregate materials, bauxite, low-sulfur coal, and agricultural products,” the decision states. “These products would be transported in cars added to crude oil trains or frac sand trains.”

Sited entirely on an inventoried roadless area, 12-mile the right of way would be 100 feet wide and up to 200 feet wide to accommodate sidings. It would bridge streams crossings and pass through three tunnels, totaling 2.6 miles in length, as it parallels U.S. Highway 191 through rugged Indian Canyon. Total disturbance area is estimated to be only 401 acres, but activists believe the impacts would extend much farther and the coalition’s mitigation measures would be inadequate.

“The impact to that ecosystem would be tremendous,” Seed said. “What they’re saying is because there’s already a highway there, this doesn’t matter. We would argue that this adds an additional substantial impact to the roadless area, especially at the point where the route turns to the north from Highway 191.”

The public has until about Dec. 18 to submit objections by email to objections-intermtn-regional-office@usda.gov.