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Feds OK Utah oil train project, eliciting ‘deep concern’ from Colorado Sen. Bennet

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January 5, 2022, 10:59 am
The Tennessee Pass Line below the old mining town of Gilman (David O. Williams photo).

The prospect of up to 350,000 barrels of oil a day rolling through Colorado on trains has caught the attention of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet following the Dec. 15 U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) approval of the Uinta Basin Railway in northeastern Utah.

“Given the strong opposition my office has heard from community leaders, I’m deeply concerned about the proposed expansion of rail lines through Tennessee Pass and Browns Canyon National Monument to move crude oil through Colorado,” Bennet, a Democrat, told the Colorado Times Recorder in an email statement via a spokesperson.

Bennet is referring to Union Pacific’s long-dormant 220-mile Tennessee Pass rail line along the Arkansas and Eagle rivers between Pueblo and Dotsero. Three private rail companies have been battling for control of that inactive line to revive freight and passenger service.

Barring reactivation of the Tennessee Pass Line, oil trains from Utah’s Uinta Basin would likely use Union Pacific’s active mainline through Colorado, which travels along the Colorado River, through the Moffat Tunnel at Winter Park, and down into Denver.

Oil tanker car photo courtesy of NorthWoodsHiawatha via Wikimedia.

“If [the Uinta Basin] railway is built, these trains are headed your way,” warned Deeda Seed, Utah-based public lands senior campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Salt Lake City Council member. “We are concerned that they will go through the Moffat Tunnel, which is already crowded, and cause pressure to reopen the Tennessee Pass for other rail traffic to relieve that pressure. Also, there is still the potential for them to be routed over the Tennessee Pass directly.”

Media representatives for Union Pacific and the Uinta Basin Railway did not return emails requesting comment.

Seed’s biggest concern with the approval of Uinta Basin, and one shared by STB Chairman Martin Oberman in his dissenting opinion, is the climate emergency caused by burning fossil fuels.

“What the STB did … was to pour gasoline on the climate emergency, that’s about all you can say when a regulatory body approves a project that has as its main purpose transporting 350,000 barrels of oil per day, which will create, based on conservative estimates, 53 million tons of carbon emissions per year,” Seed told CTR. “That’s about the amount of carbon emitted per year from six dirty coal plants.”

Oberman, appointed STB chairman by President Joe Biden in January and the lone no vote in the 4-1 decision, wrote he could not approve the 85-mile line connecting the seven counties of the oil-rich Uinta Basin to the main rail network at Price Canyon because it’s primarily intended to move waxy crude oil to refineries. The project is supported by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and the rest of the state’s Republican congressional delegation.

Sen. Michael Bennet.
Sen. Michael Bennet

“The critical question presented in this proceeding is whether [Uinta Basin] would serve the public interest given its centrality to oil development in the Basin and the broader and dire global warming crisis, as well as the very serious, significant, and unavoidable environmental impacts that today’s decision does in fact attribute to the project,” Oberman wrote. “Absent some particularized national need for increased oil from the Basin, of which there is none, I cannot support construction of the Line.”

In Colorado, most of the concern about the Utah oil project, including an objection from Eagle County that was rejected last January by the STB, has centered on oil trains possibly traveling along the Tennessee Pass Line, which has not seen freight trains since 1997 or passenger trains since the 1960s.

Colorado, Midland & Pacific, a nascent rail company formed by Uinta Basin Railway parent company Rio Grande Pacific, was rebuffed by the STB in March of last year in its attempt to secure an expedited lease with Union Pacific for a section of the Tennessee Pass Line between Sage (near Gypsum) and Parkdale on the western end of the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River.

While that deal was for passenger service and some freight, Colorado Midland asked the STB to exclude hazmat such as oil in its approval – a request critics said was not allowed under federal common-carrier railroad law. The STB did not rule on that request and instead rejected the expedited lease application in lieu of more extensive environmental review.

The Belden Tunnel of the Tennessee Pass Line below Gilman (David O. Williams photo).

Asked if the recent STB approval of the Uinta Basin Railway changes that dynamic for Rio Grande Pacific as it tries to move oil east through Colorado to Gulf Coast refineries, a spokeswoman issued the following statement to CTR: 

“Rio Grande Pacific is still interested in exploring community interest in commuter/passenger rail opportunities in the Tennessee Pass rail corridor,” Sara Thompson Cassidy, RGPC Community Liaison for Tennessee Pass, said in an email.

“The company’s most recent filing with the STB for Tennessee Pass limited operations to commuter/passenger rail and general commodities, excluding hazmat,” Cassidy added. “It is still our intention to consider whether the existing rail corridor factors into community plans for transportation, climate action goals, economic development, workforce mobility, higher education campuses, tourism, and more.”

Bennet did not address the possibility of increased oil trains on the active main line along the Colorado River, through the Moffat Tunnel, and down into Denver. And it’s unclear whether federal rail dollars approved as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which both Bennet and Romney voted for, could be used for the Uinta Basin Railway project.

Bennet did make clear he does not like the idea of those oil trains traveling southeast on a resuscitated Tennessee Pass Line, the most direct route to the Gulf Coast. Passenger rail may be another matter.

“I am, however, hopeful that the historic investment in passenger rail included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill will improve passenger rail service across Colorado and the country,” Bennet said. 

The state of Colorado is primarily focused on a Front Range Passenger Rail line from Fort Collins to Pueblo – a priority for the federal rail carrier Amtrak that will likely see a big boost from the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In its December ruling, the STB did not see the potential for huge oil train traffic increases through the Moffat Tunnel. It addressed concerns expressed by the Center for Biological Diversity {CBD) about increased “downline” oil traffic on the active line to Denver or the inactive Tennessee Pass Line.

Deeda Seed

“Minimal increases in train traffic on existing rail lines already in use are not likely to result in significant additional impacts required to be analyzed under [National Environmental Policy Act],” the STB decision reads. “And indeed, CBD points to nothing that would indicate that the downline impacts here would be significant, but instead relies on speculation.”

CBD’s Seed urges Coloradans to ask the White House, “‘Why is your administration enabling this terrible project?’ This project is entirely contrary to President Biden’s executive order on climate. I think it’s still a very helpful action for Coloradans to ring the alarm bell on this with their elected officials.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Colorado Times Recorder.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

One Response to Feds OK Utah oil train project, eliciting ‘deep concern’ from Colorado Sen. Bennet

  1. Fooshie Reply

    January 23, 2022 at 11:19 am

    Note to Deeda Seed, the Utah-based public lands senior campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Salt Lake City Council member: The Moffat Tunnel route is not longer as crowded as it used to be, since much of the through traffic has been re-routed, and the local traffic (primarily coal) has dried up. It appears you know little about railroad operations and that your main concern is climate change; you are therefore using a bad-faith argument to fear-monger Colorado NIMBYs into stopping the development of the Uinta Basin Railway.

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