An interlocal entity called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC) is the body driving the Uinta Basin Railway forward. The SCIC has designed the railway to service one lone industry: oil. The SCIC has received $27.9 million in public money from the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB) to start work on the project. Federal and state law require the board to distribute a portion of royalties from oil, gas and mineral extraction on federal lands back to local communities to offset the damage from that development, such as wear and tear on roads and impacts to public services. But in recent years the board has illegally funded private fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, like the Uinta Basin Railway. Rather than help local communities handle impacts from development, these projects would actually make things worse.
How much will it cost?
The project’s proponents claim railway construction will cost $1.5 billion, but it could be much more. A 2015 Utah Department of Transportation study estimated the cost would be $4.5 billion. The SCIC has partnered with Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners L.P., a private investment firm based in New York City and Orlando, to finance the project. It is unclear whether any of the cost might be shouldered by taxpayers.
Where would the railroad be built?
The Uinta Basin Railway would be constructed along one of three proposed routes and would have major impacts to air, water, wildlife and communities on surrounding lands. To explore the proposed routes in more detail and see how the project might affect you, check out this interactive map.
An environmental impact study examining potential harm to wildlife, plants and other resources is under way, but the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition has already designated Whitmore Park as the preferred route.
The federal Surface Transportation Board removed an earlier route to Craig, Colo. from consideration at the request of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. Citing wildlife and other resource concerns, the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife had also requested that the route be removed from consideration. Now that it has been taken off of the table, the railway would certainly be constructed through the off-grid community in Argyle Canyon. All three remaining routes cut through that area.
How much oil would the Uinta Basin Railway carry?
It’s unclear. Many numbers have been tossed around.
A 2019 memo prepared by Jones & DeMille Engineering, Inc. summing up a feasibility study done by R.L. Banks & Associates, Inc. said the railway “...would facilitate increased oil production in the Uinta Basin in the range of 225,000 to 350,000...” barrels of oil per day. The memo says current production in the region is around 80,000 to 85,000 barrels per day. An increase of this magnitude would mean oil extraction in the Uinta Basin would roughly quadruple. More recently, proponents have indicated that a minimum of 130,000 barrels per day would have to be transported for the railway to be feasible.
Note: one barrel = 42 gallons of oil.
Would the Uinta Basin Railway take oil trucks off of Utah’s highways?
For the most part, no. Currently, hundreds of trucks per day carry oil from the Uinta Basin to the refineries in Salt Lake City. If the railway is constructed, trucking may still prove to be the cheapest option for those refineries due to the relatively short distance of the trip. Furthermore, in a September 9, 2019 interview on KVEL 104.5FM radio Mark Hemphill of Rio Grande Pacific, the company that would construct and operate the railway, indicated that there is no way to offload oil from trains at the Salt Lake refineries. Constructing a facility to do so would be prohibitively expensive.
On the September 24th episode of the same show, a public affairs officer for the SCIC clearly stated that trucking of oil to the Salt Lake refineries would remain if the rail is constructed. She also indicated that short haul trucking in the Uinta Basin would actually increase because of the need to get increased volumes of oil to the train. Only trucks that currently travel to Price, roughly along the proposed route of the railway, would be replaced by rail transport.
Aren’t oil trains dangerous?
There is no such thing as a safe oil train. But the “waxy” crude oil in the Uinta Basin is less volatile than others that are commonly transported by rail.
A massive increase in the quantity of oil being shipped by rail and a dangerous lack of regulation has led to numerous disastrous oil train derailments across the U.S. and Canada. In 2013 an oil train derailment in Lac Mégantic Québec, burned down half of the town’s downtown area, killing nearly 50 people.
Many of these accidents involved oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and from tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada. The industry had claimed that tar sands oil would be safer to ship, but because of the way it was manipulated for transport, that has proven to be false.
Crude oil from the Uinta Basin is relatively inert and solidifies at temperatures below about 100 degrees. The oil is waxy and contains relatively low levels of the volatile compounds that cause some oils to be flammable or combustible. But a spill could still pose risks to communities and ecosystems through which the trains would pass. Furthermore, because they are long and heavy, oil trains — no matter what type of oil they contain — are particularly prone to accidents.
We don’t yet know exactly what these trains would carry, under what conditions particular oils would be transported or where the Uinta Basin Railway oil trains would travel. We should be wary of those who dismiss the potential risks involved.
Would the railway carry goods other than oil?
Not really. While the Uinta Basin Railway would be capable of carrying other goods, it has always been clear that the railway is intended for oil trains. In fact, at the quantities being discussed (around 300,000 barrels or 12.6 million gallons of oil per day), the railway would have little capacity for anything else.
According to the final scope of study, each day, between three and ten oil trains would travel along the railway on average, along with perhaps one train carrying fracking products every other day. Half of the trains would leave the basin full of oil and half would enter the basin empty. Each oil train would contain around 110 cars, which each typically have around 29,000 gallons of capacity. The SCIC does not anticipate that there would be enough demand to generate additional trains carrying other products.
The railway is not being designed to provide passenger service. Rather than ending at one of the Uinta Basin population centers, the railway would end at two remote sites suitable for industrial uses and large facilities for loading oil onto the trains.
Where would the oil be headed?
We aren't sure. Given the characteristics of the oils produced in the Uinta Basin, most refineries could incorporate some amount in the mix they use for feedstock. The proponents of the Uinta Basin Railway generally talk about the oil traveling to the Gulf Coast, but have provided no details about where exactly the oil would be refined and consumed.
Where the oil travels once it has left the Uinta Basin has major health and safety consequences for the communities that it is being transported through and refined in. Without this information, these consequences cannot be adequately understood and accounted for.
What does the Uinta Basin Railway have to do with tar sands and oil shale?
These fuels are some of the most energy and carbon intensive in the world. They wreak havoc on the landscape and the climate, and in the end produce oils that are not appealing to refiners. While they are difficult, expensive and dirty to produce, if oil prices increase speculative ventures will ramp up attempts to get them to market and the Uinta Basin Railway would help those efforts.
Doesn’t the Uinta Basin already experience poor air quality?
Yes. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency declared that the Uinta Basin’s ozone levels exceeded federal standards. Pollution in this rural region is at times as bad or worse than Los Angeles due to decades of oil and gas development. Ozone pollution causes asthma attacks and other harmful conditions that can lead to premature death. Quadrupling oil production by constructing the Uinta Basin Railway would make the problem much worse.