Uinta Basin oil trains set to cross Colorado after Forest Service decision

It seems likely that heated train cars loaded with waxy crude oil will cross Colorado after the Forest Service last week dismissed objections to a proposed new rail line through a roadless section of forest in Utah.

“We will continue to fight this terrible project with every tool at our disposal,” said Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity, who spent years fighting to stop the Uinta Basin railroad project. , an 85-mile stretch of new railroad. that would connect the oil fields of northeastern Utah to the national rail network.

A consortium of environmental groups earlier this year filed objections to the Forest Service’s draft plan to allow the new railroad to traverse about 12 miles of roadless area, with new bridges and tunnels in the Ashley National Forest . The agency last week dismissed those objections, ruling that the environmental impact assessment conducted for years by the Federal Board of Surface Transportation, which approved the new railway in December 2020, adequately addressed to environmental concerns.

“In our opinion, the entirety and essence of the reasonably foreseeable environmental effects have been fully and clearly disclosed” in the environmental review, Deborah Oakeson, deputy regional forester with the Forest Service, wrote July 5 to attorneys representing environmental groups. .

This was a final regulatory hurdle for the railroad’s backers. Houston-based Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and rail operator Rio Grande Pacific Corp. plan to build the $1.5 billion railroad for Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, which has spent years studying how to move viscous, waxy crude oil from the Uinta Basin to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The plan could move up to 350,000 barrels a day — up to 5 billion gallons a year — into railcars that need to be heated to keep the crude from solidifying. The crude is too thick to pass through a pipeline, and production has been limited by rules limiting the number of tanker trucks.

If the railroad is built, it will connect to the Union Pacific Railroad railroad that runs along the Colorado River from Grand Junction, through Glenwood Springs and Gore Canyon, to Granby, then through the Fraser River Valley to through the Moffat Tunnel in Boulder County and Denver.

A 500-year rain event in July 2021 sent mud and debris onto Union Pacific railroad tracks and into the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon along Interstate 70. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun )

Earlier this year, Eagle County joined several environmental groups in an appeal for the Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the Uinta Basin Railroad. That appeal, filed in the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, argues that the board failed to consider the indirect impacts of tanker train traffic on the Colorado River and communities along the river corridor.

Rio Grande Pacific Corp., which is under contract to operate the railroad, in 2020 asked the Surface Transportation Board for an expedited review of a plan to open the long-inactive Tennessee Pass Line that connects Dotsero to Cañon City. . Many communities and environmental groups along this line have strongly opposed the idea of ​​rail traffic on the mountainous railroad that winds along the Arkansas River from Leadville to Pueblo. The new Colorado Midland & Pacific Railway Co. of Rio Grande Pacific Corp. promised it would not ship oil on the tracks and would only carry passengers and non-hazardous goods on the railroad which closed in 1997 after a history of derailments. The surface board in March 2021 denied fast-track approval, forcing Rio Grande Pacific to pursue a lengthy environmental review if it wanted to restart rail traffic on the Tennessee Pass.

Tennessee Pass Line and surrounding rail lines. (Surface Transportation Board filing)

“Bold actions to restore forests”

Two weeks ago, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the head of the U.S. Forest Service released a memo saying the agency would take “bold steps to restore forests, improve resilience, and address the climate crisis”.

The Forest Service’s new push for “immediate, near-term actions to strengthen carbon management and climate resilience” in National Forests was in response to President Joe Biden’s executive order to strengthen National Forests with climate change mitigation. forest fires, ecosystem restoration and reforestation.

“But here is the agency that absolutely has the discretion to stop a project that will contribute significantly to the climate crisis, but it chooses to do nothing and literally throws oil on the fire that is the climate crisis. The alarm bells are ringing,” said Seed, whose group sued in Utah state court last year to block the railroad project, arguing that the railroad project had illegally used funds from the state mining lease account to enable the new railroad when those funds were intended to mitigate the impacts of mining.

Mark Michel, co-founder and managing partner of Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, said there is “an insatiable need and desire not only from energy consumers here in the United States, but around the world, for a stable supply and increased reliability of… energy opportunities.”

Utah is “extraordinarily blessed to have the geological courage” to have access to this type of crude, Michel told the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition during a hearing at the Utah Statehouse on Friday.

Michel said his team has seen increased demand for this waxy crude from oil refineries keen to produce household energy as well as demand from manufacturers of cosmetics, lubricants and plastics.

“The market has responded and I think, frankly, it’s been a wonderful opportunity as an American developer to bring this product to market to meet the security needs of our allies across Europe as well as in Asia, as well as to meet the energy needs of Americans,” Michel told the coalition, describing the railroad “as a very important project for the national security of this country.”

A passenger train in November 2021 passes through Gore Canyon along the Colorado River. A proposed new railroad in Utah could run heated oil trains on the same tracks through the remote canyon. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

Keith Heaton, the coalition’s executive director, said “we would do a lot of good with these products if we could just get them to market.”

“The world will be a better place both environmentally and economically with these products,” Heaton said.

Coalition board member Jack Lytle, commissioner for Daggett County in Utah, one of seven counties working to build the railroad, said the coalition’s multi-year work on the path de fer is “a terrific model for the state and other commissions on how things can be done”. .”

“It can be duplicated,” Lytle said.

Opponents of the railroad estimate that the production and use of Uinta Basin crude could increase US greenhouse gas emissions by 1%. And then there are concerns about rolling heated oil over 200 miles of the Colorado River through Colorado.

“Approving this is the opposite of a bold move,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who organized the lawsuit filed in the United States Court of Appeals. “It’s just breathtaking. Our government’s priorities are not to fight the climate crisis. It’s about bowing to the power of the oil and gas industry. There is a disconnect here between the rhetoric and the action of this administration.

Environmental groups could file a lawsuit opposing the Forest Service’s final approval of the railroad through the Ashley National Forest. And then there are the lawsuits in Washington and Utah, which could halt or slow down the project. But perhaps the best hope for environmental groups is with the market, where investors might be wary of long-term games in fossil fuels.

“It’s an expensive thing to build,” said Seed, who called the projected initial construction cost of $1.5 billion a “significant understatement” in light of recent economic changes. “Where will this money come from? There is a real concern that they start building this and not finish it. Or it is built and then not used.

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