Uinta Basin Railway derailed, but not officially dead yet

The Grizzly Creek burn scar along the ridges above Glenwood Canyon as seen from the air on Monday Aug. 25, 2020. Eagle County is opposing 100-car long trains carrying waxy crude on railways along the Colorado River, where in areas like Glenwood Canyon, the tracks are yards from the water.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

The Uinta Basin Railway might have been derailed, but it can still get back on some kind of track.

The US Court of Appeals sided with Eagle County, and other Colorado and local leaders, to halt the Uinta Basin Railway on Aug. 15, citing the Environmental Impact Statement as deficient.  

The court found numerous National Environmental Policy Act violations arising from the EIS, according to the court, including failures to: 

  • Quantify reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation and special-status species of increased drilling in the Uinta Basin and increased oil-train traffic along the Union Pacific Line, as well as the effects of oil refining on environmental justice communities on the Gulf Coast
  • Take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline
  • Explain the lack of available information on local accident risk in accordance with 40 C.F.R. § 1502.22(b) (2020). The EIS is further called into question since the Biological Opinions failed to assess impacts on the Colorado River fish downline
Heated tanker cars roll west through Glenwood Springs in fall 2022.
John Stroud/Post Independent

What happens now?

Many of the groups and leaders fighting the Uinta Basin waxy crude oil being transported through Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico are now fighting a possible approval from the Utah Bureau of Land Management to expand something called the Wildcat Loadout outside of Price, Utah. 

One action Glenwood Springs took recently to halt the expansion of the Wildcat Loadout was writing a letter to BLM Utah State Director Greg Sheehan on Aug. 7. 

Support Local Journalism

“The Wildcat Loadout and Uinta Railway proposals are inextricably linked because they will both add significant new oil train traffic to the Union Pacific Line,” Mayor Ingrid Wussow said in the letter. “The (Loadout) proposes to increase the facility’s capacity from 30,000 barrels per day to 100,000 barrels per day onto rail.”

There is some speculation with Colorado leaders and attorneys that if the project is unable to pass the Environmental Impact Statement and move a railway through Colorado, they will resort to oil trucks on highways. Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said that he thinks if the project isn’t able to use trains through Colorado and Garfield County, they will switch to transporting the oil by trucks. 

Harper Powell, a law student at the University of Colorado Law School and summer associate for City Attorney Karl Hanlon, speculated the same possibility during a City Council presentation on July 20.

“Projections show the Railway must ship around 350,000 barrels of oil per day along the Union Pacific Line for that project to be economically feasible,” Wussow’s letter to Sheehan said. “This would require 9.5 trains of up to 10,000 feet in length traveling the rail line through Glenwood Springs, Glenwood Canyon and further mountainous points east each day.”

The average oil tanker on a train car holds around 20,000 to 30,000 gallons, while a single large truck oil tanker can only carry about 11,000 gallons. There are 42 gallons in a barrel. 

That would mean that around 1,336 trucks would need to transport oil through Colorado daily to make the same profits.

Jonathan Godes, the former mayor of Glenwood Springs, shakes hands with Sen. Michael Bennett at Grizzly Creek.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Getting further back on track

Since the Environmental Impact Statement and federal approval were overturned by the court, the project will either need to appeal it through the Supreme Court, and have the Supreme Court choose to pick it up, or project proponents need to conduct another study to receive an updated Environmental Impact Statement, according to Glenwood Springs City Attorney Karl Hanlon.

Redoing an Environmental Impact Statement would take a number of years, stalling the project for some time, but still giving it an opportunity to come back. 

“The lawsuit victory last week mandating a redo of the Environmental Impact Statement was a massive win,” Councilor Jonathan Godes said. “Anytime you can stop 350,000 barrels of crude a day from going through an incredibly fragile and sensitive Glenwood Canyon, it is a victory we must celebrate and the wind is at our backs for the time being.”

Godes has been Glenwood Springs’ spokesperson for attempting to halt the Uinta Basin Railway since he served as mayor. 

“However, until the Uintah Basin Railway project announces that the project is dead, we need to continue to fight this battle to the very end,” he said.

Other steps the project is relying on is a private activity bond from the federal government. 

Private activity bonds are low-interest taxpayer-funded bonds that go to privately developed and operated projects, issued by the Department of Transportation. The project is hoping to receive $2 billion in private activity bonds, Powell noted during the council meeting on July 20.

Most of the funds from private activity bonds go to more public-interest projects, while this project is not quite a direct benefit for the public, Powell said. 

The project itself offers no economic or monetary benefit to the state of Colorado.

Actions being taken

Many activist groups and Glenwood Springs leaders joined a flotilla protest on the Colorado River on Aug. 26 as a way to show the importance and necessity of the Colorado River to the region. 

“The protest flotilla this past weekend is a strong signal to the Uinta Basin Railway, the state of Utah, the BLM and the department of Transportation that we will not give up and that we are paying attention,” Godes said. 

Glenwood Springs’ experience with economic loss due to environmental disasters is unfortunately both extensive and familiar, Wussow said in the letter to Sheehan. 

“The 2020 Grizzly Creek fire is merely one example where over 32,000 acres of forest land, starting just one mile from the city, burned and resulted in long-term closures of I-70, the major interstate connecting Glenwood Springs to the rest of the state,” she said in the letter.

The letter talks about the heightened possibility of fire caused to both the region and other U.S. National Forest Lands from both the oil itself and additional sparks caused by more trains. 

Water contamination was one of the biggest concerns mentioned for both wildlife and the millions of people the Colorado River serves throughout the nation.

Eagle County and Glenwood Springs both profit greatly on outdoor recreation on the Colorado River which would greatly affect local economies in the case of an oil spill. 

“Estimates predict that one fully loaded oil train will derail each year, with a disastrous oil spill resulting from one of these derailments approximately every four years,” Wussow said in the letter to Sheehan. “The Surface Transportation Board’s Final Environmental Impact Statement further acknowledges the fact that derailments are more likely to occur on rugged terrain containing ‘steep slopes’ and ‘narrow canyons.'”

Support Local Journalism