A Moffat County route is still in the running for a proposed railroad that would provide an outlet for oil produced in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, but isn't the preferred alternative of the group pushing the project.
Meanwhile, other alternative routes that would have reached Rifle or Mack have been ruled out, after having made a short list of eight routes winnowed down from 29 initially evaluated.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, made up of eastern Utah counties working together on transportation, broadband and other infrastructure initiatives, is pushing the railroad project to connect the basin's oil to existing rail lines and boost access to more markets. The oil now is trucked mostly to the Salt Lake City area, where it goes to refineries there.
The coalition has obtained state funding to cover the roughly $30 million cost of preparing a federal environmental impact statement on the project. The federal Surface Transportation Board will be working with a contractor to prepare that document.
That environmental review will focus on three routes. Two would head southwest within Utah to a point northwest of Price, following different routes. An 80-mile route following Indian Canyon southwest of Duchesne is the coalition's preferred one.
A third, 185-mile route would head east to the Dinosaur, Colo., area. It would then share about 13 miles of the Deseret Power Railroad, which ships coal from the Deserado Mine in Rio Blanco County to a power plant across the Utah border, before roughly tracking U.S. Highway 40 and then heading to its end in the Axial area southwest of Craig.
Eric Johnson, an attorney who represents the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said both the preferred alternative and the Craig route would cost an estimated $1.2 billion.
But the preferred route, besides being shorter, is more likely to get oil trucks off the highway in Utah than the Craig route would be, improving safety on those highways.
The reason is that the preferred route is a somewhat direct route to Salt Lake City refineries for any oil that would be shipped to them, whereas the Craig alternative would result in a "big, circuitous route" for any oil headed to Salt Lake City, he said.
Johnson said while multiple versions of routes to Rifle and Mack were considered, mountain passes kept those options from becoming finalists for consideration.
"We really took a very careful look at Rifle — that would have really helped that Natural Soda plant," Johnson said.
Natural Soda solution-mines baking soda southwest of Meeker and currently trucks its product to Rifle for shipment to domestic and international customers.
The new railroad would allow the Uinta Basin to ship out not just oil but gilsonite, a local mined natural asphalt, as well as locally produced agricultural commodities. And it would allow for shipping into the basin things such as hydraulic fracturing sand and tubular steel used in local oil and gas development.
"It's not like an oil pipeline where it's single purpose and it only flows one direction. It's a multiple-purpose transportation solution," Johnson said.
He said the project backers could look to private investors to obtain financing to pay for the railroad but also are looking at trying to tap federal low-interest financing specifically offered for railroad construction.
Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck previously has said a railroad in northwest Colorado would have a huge economic benefit for western Colorado, boosting interstate and intrastate commerce.
Meanwhile, Ryan Beam, who works in Utah for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he's working to assemble a coalition of opponents to the project. He said it "would torpedo efforts to transition from boom-and-bust fossil fuel extraction towards clean, sustainable, just economies."
He said that with it appearing the rail line will be built in Utah, for Colorado communities that would mean "hundreds of new toxic trains traveling through on existing rail without any clear benefits in sight." He said project proponents are talking about oil being shipped to the Gulf Coast, meaning it presumably would go south in Utah and then east through Grand Junction and Denver.
The oil's high paraffin content makes it less volatile and explosive than other oil in case of a train accident. But "that doesn't mean the stuff isn't still toxic," and there still would be impacts to local communities from diesel train engine exhaust associated with pulling "uniquely heavy" trains, Beam said.
He said he also is concerned that the rail line could lead to quadrupling of oil production in the Uinta Basin, which already is out of attainment for federal ozone standards because of pollution from oil and gas development.
Johnson said environmental concerns will be looked at during the federal review process.