Why is Colorado trying to block Utah’s proposed oil rail?

Uinta Basin Railway would enable a massive increase in oil production, which would be shipped through Eagle County ski country

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

The proposed Uinta Basin Railway would operate entirely in Utah, but Colorado officials are now pressuring federal authorities to block the project, which could result in thousands of tanker cars filled with Utah crude passing over the Centennial State’s mountains on their way to Gulf Coast refineries.

Colorado’s Eagle County, home to iconic ski destinations like Vail and Beaver Creek, last week filed court papers seeking a judicial review of two recent decisions by the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) that approved an 85-mile line that would connect the Uinta Basin’s oil production with the Union Pacific line in Utah’s Price Canyon.

The project aims to bring Utah’s waxy crude to markets outside Salt Lake City’s refineries, but that would come at a steep cost to the Colorado towns along the tracks, court papers claim.

Those impacts were ignored in the STB’s environmental review, which erroneously concluded the Uinta project’s downline impacts would be negligible since there is already heavy rail traffic on UP tracks through Colorado, according to Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu.

“This is a lot more trains carrying a lot different material. You’ve got to look at what they’re carrying and how many trains are they pulling, where they’re going and how the climate has changed,” Treu said. “They bifurcated the whole process. They looked at the transportation merits first, and then they looked at the environmental review. They didn’t do it together, which makes for a really bad review of the environmental impacts.”

Colorado’s action represents yet another example of proposed shipments of Utah-produced fossil fuels running into roadblocks erected in other states. West Coast cities have enacted ordinances and taken other actions to thwart the use of their ports for coal exports, while Oregon agencies have stymied the development of a liquid natural gas terminal in Coos Bay.

Thom Carter, who heads the Utah Office of Energy Development, declined to comment on the Uinta rail case because it’s in active litigation.

In addition to the recent court filing, other Colorado agencies are asking Congress to get involved and pressing the U.S. Forest Service to reconsider its decision granting a 12-mile right of way for the railway across the Ashley National Forest.

The Eagle County challenge joins an earlier one filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. The two actions have been consolidated in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.

Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition wants to build the railway, which would be operated by Rio Grande Pacific, in the hopes of tripling or quadrupling the Uinta Basin’s daily oil production to as much as 350,000 barrels. The basin’s current production is moved entirely by truck to Salt Lake City refineries, though some is trucked to a rail loading station on the Union Pacific line in Wellington.

A new rail connection would solve the transportation bottleneck that has long restricted Uinta production and depressed prices, proponents say.

When the Uinta railway begins operating, most of the increased production will wind up heading east through Eagle County, located midway between Grand Junction and Denver. The UP line through Colorado’s Moffat Tunnel is already at capacity, so Eagle County officials suspect rail operators secretly intend to use the UP-owned Tennessee Pass Line, idled for the past 25 years.

This 208-mile line traverses Eagle County, from Dotsero to Pueblo, through a narrow canyon subject to frequent rockfall on its way over a 10,400-foot pass.

A subsidiary of Rio Grande Pacific, the operator of the proposed Uinta line, is seeking approval to run freight trains over Tennessee Pass, but the Surface Transportation Board has so far declined to allow it.

But that has been little comfort to various local governments in Colorado, whose officials are raising alarms with that state’s Democratic senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, the former governor. The 40-member Northwest Colorado Council of Governments argues the Uinta railroad would result in as many as 10 trains a day, each pulling 100 tanker cars stretching more than a mile, passing through Eagle County.

In a Jan. 24 letter to Bennet on behalf of the council, Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said the project would unleash 53 million tons of carbon emissions annually, posing a threat to the climate.

“The significant increase in railroad traffic creates air quality and noise impacts through the Colorado River recreation corridor, renowned for rafting and fishing and thus an important economic driver for our region,” wrote Chandler-Henry. “The high volume of crude oil transported along the Colorado River, especially through Glenwood Canyon already struggling to recover from 2020 wildfires, makes a spill more likely and more catastrophic. A spill on the railway could affect drinking and irrigation water supplies for many miles along with the environmental harm.”