Rock art site Nine Mile Canyon could become ‘hydrocarbon highway’ under Utah bill

Bill to divert $20 million from infrastructure fund divides oil and coal counties

(Al Hartmann | Salt Lake Tribune) Water trucks make their way along the road through Utah's rock art-filled Nine Mile Canyon in 2010. A new plan pushed by lawmakers would upgrade the road so it be used to move Uinta Basin crude to rail lines near Wellington, resulting in trucks passing through the scenic canyon every 7 minutes.

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A tanker truck every 7 minutes. That’s the level of oil-hauling traffic that would pass through Utah’s quiet and scenic Nine Mile Canyon, home to the world’s largest concentration of rock art, under a plan being quietly pushed by lawmakers this session.

The road-upgrade project came to light last week at the monthly meeting of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC), where it drove a wedge between that interlocal organization’s oil-producing and coal-producing members.

These counties joined forces a decade ago to promote major transportation projects to support mineral extraction in eastern Utah, but now it appears their interests are diverging over SB51.

Representatives for Carbon County, home to Nine Mile, and two other coal-producing counties in the coalition were dismayed to discover the bill would not only raid a $53 million fund set up to develop a coal-export terminal on the West Coast, it would also put a “hydrocarbon highway” through a scenic canyon. Nine Mile Canyon is one of the world’s top spots to view petroglyphs left by ancient Native Americans.

The proposal basically pits the interests of Duchesne County, Utah’s biggest oil producer, against those of its neighbor to the south, which views Nine Mile Canyon as a tourist destination, according to county commissioners’ comments at the SCIC’s Feb. 18 meeting.

“The Nine Mile road was not built to handle heavy truck traffic. We are being told there could be a truck every 7 minutes, depending on how much they build the [oil production] volume before rail is potentially put in to take that volume,” Carbon’s Casey Hopes said. “That road was not built to that standard. It was built to take some heavy truck traffic but not a constant pounding.”

The SCIC has recently won federal approval to build the oil-hauling 85-mile Uinta Basin Railway from Myton to the Union Pacific line at the top of Price Canyon, so it is not clear why another pathway for Uinta crude is even needed.

Back in 2014 when Nine Mile was first paved, officials said the purpose of that upgrade was not for hauling oil, but to serve rock art visitors and natural gas wells inside the canyon. The main rationale was to minimize dust emissions from the former dirt road, which was obscuring and damaging the petroglyphs.

Now it appears hauling oil through Nine Mile remains a possibility after all, even with construction on the railroad slated to begin as soon as January 2023.

“We don’t want to be hurt on both sides of this. You take the infrastructure funding, as well as take the trucks and the damaged roads that [Carbon County] constituents pay for,” Hopes told the SCIC board. “We don’t receive any revenue from the oil produced in the basin.”

The Nine Mile road travels about 78 miles from Myton to Wellington, passing through the Monument Buttes oil field on the West Tavaputs Plateau, then down the Book Cliffs at Gate Canyon before winding through Nine Mile Canyon to U.S. Highway 6.

The entire road is now paved except for a 5-mile stretch of switchbacks off the plateau through Gate Canyon. That’s the part that would need to be upgraded to accommodate oil tanker traffic. While costly, such a project would substantially shorten travel times from the West Tavaputs oil wells to existing oil-loading facilities on the Union Pacific line in Wellington.

The SCIC includes the oil and gas producing Uintah and Duchesne counties and coal-producing Carbon, Emery and Sevier counties. Those three plus Sanpete county have sought to invest $53 million in a rail-to-ship coal-loading terminal in Oakland, Calif. To facilitate that move, the Legislature saved money from Utah’s Throughput Infrastructure Fund set up to support major transportation projects that would connect Utah-extracted minerals with faraway markets.

That fund’s enabling legislation, however, conspicuously does not include roads on its list of eligible projects, which specifies transmission lines, railroads, pipelines and, of course, the ocean terminal. The prospects for a coal terminal in Oakland are all but dead under a settlement in the works between the Bay Area city and port developers, potentially freeing Utah’s infrastructure fund for other projects.

To allow that fund to be used on highways, Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, added language to Sen. Wayne Harper’s SB51, a bill ostensibly aimed at regulating emissions from “vintage” cars, to divert $20 million from the infrastructure fund “for a highway used primarily for the transportation of hydrocarbons.” Somewhat misleadingly, Harper had told a House committee the money would “repair” roads used by oil tankers.

The proposal was framed in a way that would please rural county commissioners, but coal country leaders were anything but thrilled.

“I am a little bit behooved that he wouldn’t have come to talk to the counties that were going to be affected by this,” said Sevier County Commissioner Garth “Tooter” Ogden at the SCIC meeting. “To bring this through the back door is not the way to do legislative work. I respect everybody on this board, but … these legislators need to come to the counties and visit with us before they start throwing things out there. … We are trying to protect our own backyards.”

Appearing at the SCIC meeting, which was held at the Capitol, Winterton said he had acted at the direction of “leadership” and pledged to drop the highway funding provisions from SB51. But then gave his own lecture to coalition board members, all rural county commissioners.

“If you have a problem, you need to call the legislator. You don’t run around behind their back trying to do something because that backfires,” said Winterton, himself a former Duchesne County commissioner who served on the SCIC board. Winterton said he has “backed off” from raiding the infrastructure fund and will pay for the Nine Mile project through some other means. But then he cautioned the SCIC’s coal-county members that he will “remember” their complaints, which he characterized as unfair given his past service to the coalition, and future funding requests might be “a little slower in coming.”

SB51 remains in the House Rules Committee, where it was sent to undergo a fiscal analysis, before being forwarded to the House floor for a vote. It has already been approved by the Senate.