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Trains will carry “waxy crude” oil through Colorado every day after Utah approves new railway

The Surface Transportation Board last month approved the Uinta Basin Railway, which will push three to 10 trains of ‘waxy crude’ through Colorado communities every day.

A passenger train in November 2021 passes through Gore Canyon along the Colorado River. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)
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The Surface Transportation Board’s recent approval of a new 88-mile railroad in Utah’s Uinta Basin has spiked concerns that daily trains loaded with heated crude oil will be traveling along Colorado’s river corridors.

“It’s a ticking carbon bomb,” said Michael Kunkel, whose Friends of Browns Canyon last summer successful campaigned to block an expedited proposal to revive train traffic on the long dormant, 220-mile Tennessee Pass Line between Gypsum and Cañon City. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

The Tennessee Pass train plan was proposed by Colorado Midland & Pacific, which promised it would only ferry passengers and perhaps construction materials on the mountainous railway owned by Union Pacific that last saw trains in 1997. The company that owns Colorado Midland & Pacific — Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific Corp. — is the planned operator of the approved Uinta Basin Railway. 

The Utah railroad would connect to the national rail network, allowing trains to transport “waxy crude” to Gulf Coast refineries from the Uinta Basin in northern Utah. The railroad will increase oil production in the Uinta Basin, which has been limited by the fact the viscous crude is too thick to move through a pipeline.

The route from Utah to refineries making gasoline, diesel and lubricants rolls through Colorado. Without permission to revive traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line, the oil would travel along the Colorado River from Grand Junction, through Gore Canyon, along the Fraser River through Winter Park, and through the Moffat Tunnel into Denver before heading east or south.

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

“The best thing Coloradans can do is to work to stop the railway from being constructed, because all the scenarios in terms of oil trains moving through your beautiful state are bad,” said Deeda Seed, with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading a coalition of 30 environmental groups opposed to the new Utah railroad. “The likely path of the trains will be through the Moffat Tunnel, and the increased train traffic there could be used to justify opening the Tennessee Pass to other train traffic to alleviate the pressure.”

The plan to repair dilapidated rail over Tennessee Pass stirred vehement opposition in communities along the line. The fear of Rio Grande Pacific Corp. routing crude through the White River National Forest and along the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument prodded nearly every town, county and environmental group along the 220-mile stretch to call for extensive environmental review of the plan. 

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The Surface Transportation Board in March called the proposal “highly controversial,” and said the deluge of opposition raised “unresolved questions” that ultimately led the board to deny Colorado Midland & Pacific’s request for an expedited approval.

Rafters float the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon National Monument, where a train operator is hoping to revive the Tennessee Pass Line railroad that has been dormant since 1997. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

A spokeswoman for the nascent railroad company said after the board’s decision last March that it would continue to work with local communities to explore passenger and freight traffic on the Tennessee Pass Line. 

Houston investment firm Drexel Hamilton and the Rio Grande Pacific Corp. in 2019 proposed to build the $1.5 billion Uinta Basin Railway, with plans to deliver about 350,000 barrels a day of the waxy crude to Gulf Coast refineries looking to replace dwindling supplies from Venezuela. The viscous crude from the basin is too thick to flow through a pipeline. Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition has spent two years advocating for a railroad to connect the basin’s oil with the national rail network as a way to increase production, reduce the need for slow, expensive trucks and increase economic activity in the region. 

A Texas railroad company plans to route crude oil trains from Utah’s Uinta Basin through Gore Canyon along the Colorado River near Kremmling. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

The Surface Transportation Board’s Office of Environmental Analysis issued its final environmental review of the railroad plan in August. The board gave its final approval to the rail plan Dec. 15. 

It was not a unanimous decision. Board member Martin Oberman, who was designated chairman of the board by President Joe Biden one year ago, refused to support the railroad, saying “the project’s environmental impacts outweigh its transportation merits.”

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“Ever-increasing doubt about the future market for oil undermines the project’s transportation merits,” Oberman wrote in his dissent, which noted “the global transition away from fossil fuels. This broad and rapidly accelerating trend calls into question both the viability of the coalition’s over $1 billion rail construction projec,  as well as its ability to raise money from private funding sources.”

The final chance for opponents of the railway to stop the project lies with Utah’s Ashley National Forest, where the railroad is seeking approval to build about 12 miles of new railroad in the forest, including a roadless area. The Forest Service approved the plan and is taking comments on its Draft Record of Decision now. 

The Center for Biological Diversity asked Forest Service Chief Randy Moore why the federal 2001 roadless rule that prohibited certain kinds of development on swaths of federal land would not prevent a railroad. Moore, in a letter to the center, said the project jibes with Biden’s push to rebuild infrastructure and that the railway would bring economic growth to Utah. The 2001 Roadless Rule, Moore said, prohibits road construction and “a railway does not constitute a road.”

“The economic growth it will bring is the same fossil fuel based boom-and-bust-cycle growth that has been so problematic since it began in the 1950s,” said Seed, from the Center for Biological Diversity. “Building this railway constitutes building infrastructure which has as its main purpose, a massive increase in fossil fuel extraction.”

The plan calls for three to 10 trains a day, carrying up to 350,000 barrels a day, running between Utah and Gulf Coast refineries. The train cars will need to be heated so the crude does not solidify in transit. 

“So you would have to heat up the rocks, the gravel, the dirt and the water to get this stuff out of the environment if there’s an accident,” Kunkel said. 

Another final stand for environmental groups involves the climate impacts of burning 350,000 barrels of oil a day. Seed said the oil would produce 53 million tons of carbon dioxide, roughly the equivalent of six coal-powered electrical plants. 

If Biden is serious about reducing emissions and the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, Kunkel said, he should reject the Uinta Basin Railway plan. 

Kunkel is aiming his group’s opposition campaign at Colorado’s elected leaders in Washington, noting that the trains could be rolling through four Front Range U.S. House district represented by Democrats. (And two Republican House districts.) 

“As far as a country trying to reduce greenhouse emissions, this is a joke,” he said.