This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
GLENWOOD CANYON — As the politicians bemoaned a potential spike in the number of tanker cars carrying waxy crude through Glenwood Canyon, Shelby Massey was going fishing.
“What’s going on?” the fly fishing guide asked, as he dropped his dory into the river at the Grizzly Creek boat ramp a few feet from a gaggle of lawmakers at a riverside dais drumming up support for the fight against a project routing billions of gallons of Uinta Basin crude along the river-hugging railroad.
Massey had heard about the Uinta Basin train plan.
“But I did not know this thing was approved,” said Massey, with Glenwood Springs’ Fly Fish Hookers. “Hey, if the train wreck in Ohio is not a cause to think about these things, then we are missing the point. It only takes one train to go into the river and impact millions of people.”
That’s the idea behind the politicians’ drumming. (The local, state and federal lawmakers literally dragged an oil drum down to the banks of the river to support their pitch.)
Glenwood Canyon and the community of Glenwood Springs have had a rough few years. Fire. River-clogging rockslides. Highway-closing truck crashes.
“The last thing they need is to have an additional burden placed on them when they are doing everything they can to make this part of our world and this part of our state as resilient as possible,” said Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, standing next to the 55-gallon drum on the edge of the Colorado River. “This train has no business bringing this oil from Utah through Colorado. Period. Period.”
The April 7 publicity stunt was created to get residents behind a last-ditch local, state and federal effort to block Uinta Basin oil trains from crossing through Colorado. It’s last ditch because the Surface Transportation Board, the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have already approved the railway project. Engineering and early construction work has begun in the Uinta Basin.
A host of state lawmakers stood united behind their D.C. Democratic leaders. Each spoke firmly about the threats of Utah oil trains ferrying up to 4.6 billion gallons of Uinta Basin waxy crude along the Colorado River and through metro Denver en route to Gulf Coast refineries.
Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes said the canyon was “a very fragile place.”
“Imagine the degradation of this river. Imagine the ecosystems impacted. Imagine the community’s impact if a disaster like we saw in eastern Ohio,” Colorado U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse said, noting the fiery train derailment that choked the town of East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year.
State House Speaker Julie McCluskie cheered the lawmakers standing “against the invasion of this project.” Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said the scenes of the tanker-car explosions in Ohio “fills me with dread.”
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The politicians are rallying behind the Bennet and Neguse campaign to persuade the Biden administration to pause approvals for the Uinta Basin Railway. The proposed 88-mile railroad will connect the oil fields of the Uinta Basin with the national rail network, which could quadruple oil production in the rural basin and stir economic growth. An environmental review of the new railroad estimated trains could move up to 350,000 barrels on three to 10 daily trains, each stretching several miles long and running alongside the Colorado River from Grand Junction to Kremmling. Then the trains would follow the Fraser River through Grand County to the Moffat Tunnel before rumbling down the Front Range.
Uinta Basin oil already runs along that route, but the new railroad will exponentially increase the number of crude-filled tanker cars on the railroad, which increases the chances of a derailment and oil spill in the headwaters of a river that supports 40 million people in seven Western states.
The federal lawmakers have sent letters to Biden appointees, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service, urging federal bureaucrats to revisit their reviews and approvals of the new railroad plan. Those approvals — issued since 2020 — largely analyzed the impacts to Utah. Colorado’s elected leaders across the state argue the review of potential impacts should have included threats of trains along the Colorado River. Bennet and Neguse also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging the agency to deny a request for $2 billion in private activity bonds to fund construction of the railroad.
Eagle County and several environmental groups are asking a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to overturn federal approvals of the railroad project.
Last week the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition that is orchestrating the public-private partnership to build the estimated $3 billion Uinta Basin Railway held its monthly meeting and discussed spending $1,000 a month on a communications campaign to better tell its side of the railroad story. The seven county commissioners organizing the railroad plan — and other road, pipeline, internet and transportation projects in Utah — realize they have an image problem.
The effort includes an opinion column in local newspapers, revamped social media, radio ads and possibly billboards and television commercials.
“Let’s clear the air and actually correct the misinformation that is out there,” said Melissa Stark, the communications director for the Uinta Basin Railway LLC., the private investment firm that is heading the project and recently changed its name from Drexel Hamilton Investment Partners, L.P.
The Utah commissioners approved the new campaign plan, with many urging the messaging to include the coalition’s other work to stimulate economic growth in their rural counties.
“Business people understand what we are doing,” said Keith Heaton, the director of the Vernal, Utah-based coalition. “They understand that Vernal is a huge economy and probably the biggest economy in the U.S. that does not have major transportation options and we are going to change that.”
The lawmakers on the sandy Colorado River beach earlier this month are undaunted by the series of federal and local approvals of the Utah railroad that preceded their letter-writing, oil-drum thumping campaign. Opposition is growing, Neguse said. (Even though the Garfield County commissioners are not opposing the oil-shipping plan.)
“The advocacy will grow more muscular in coming months,” he said.
Bennet said the letters and public outcry should prod action soon. He said refusing to stop the train “would be a black mark on the president’s environmental record.”
“But I think they’re going to act,” he said.
As he shoved off into the current with rods at the ready, Massey had a final thought for the note-taking reporters.
“Hookers Fly Shop. Right under the bridge,” he said of his employer, perhaps revealing a more immediate priority than train traffic. “Can you mention that?”