Colorado U.S. Sen Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, instrumental last month in at least temporarily derailing a massive expansion of Utah oil trains through Colorado, are now taking aim at a plan to enlarge a truck-to-rails oil transport facility on federal land west of Price, Utah.
In a letter Thursday to Tracy Stone-Manning, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Bennet and Neguse asked the BLM to pivot from the currently fast-tracked environmental assessment (EA) process the agency’s Utah office is conducting for the proposed Wildcat Loadout expansion near Price to a much more extensive environmental impact statement (EIS).
The two Colorado lawmakers on Thursday cited last month’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacating the U.S. Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the proposed 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway – sending the project back to the drawing board for a full-blown EIS process to better consider the downline environmental impacts of greatly increasing U.S. oil-train traffic through Colorado all the way to Gulf Coast refineries.
“In light of the court’s decision, the BLM should not repeat the STB’s mistakes, and instead conduct a robust environmental review,” the letter reads. “The BLM cannot adequately account for potential harm from increased oil shipments through Colorado with an EA, given its lower requirements for public involvement and environmental analysis.”
The plan to upgrade and expand the Wildcat Loadout facility, an underutilized former coal depot, would increase the daily transfer of Uinta Basin waxy crude oil from tanker trucks to heated rail cars from its current level of 30,000 barrels a day to 100,000 barrels a day. A barrel holds 42 gallons of oil.
“This would enable the shipment of up to an additional one billion gallons of waxy crude oil per year from Utah’s Uinta Basin through Colorado on an average of one two-mile-long train every day,” the letter reads. “These trains are proposed to run for over 100 miles alongside the Colorado River’s headwaters – a vital water supply for nearly 40 million Americans, 30 Tribal nations, and millions of acres of agricultural land.”
Opponents of the Wildcat Loadout expansion, including Uinta Basin Railway litigant Eagle County and the city of Glenwood Springs, argue it’s the applicant’s Plan B in the event the public-private partnership proponents of the proposed rail connection give up on the project, which would increase oil-train capacity from 30,000 barrels a day to 350,000 a day.
“Whether the Wildcat Loadout’s truck-to-rail gambit is industry’s Plan B or Plan A to get oil out of the Uinta Basin, the D.C. Circuit’s opinion just made it more difficult for BLM to rubberstamp it,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Ted Zukoski wrote in an email. The CBD was one of several environmental groups that also challenged the railway project in court.
“The court ruled that when considering actions that will unleash a tsunami of oil onto rail lines through Colorado, federal agencies must disclose the potential for increased rail wrecks, spills, and fires down the line, and the upstream destruction to wildlife habitat caused by increased oil production,” Zukoski added. “For BLM to survive a legal challenge, it’s even more clear now that they’ll have to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement to evaluate those harms.”
A BLM Utah spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment on last month’s court ruling against the Uinta Basin Railway and whether it means the BLM should shift from an EA process to an EIS. In an email statement last month prior to the ruling, BLM Utah offered:
“BLM Utah is currently in the development of an Environmental Assessment and is actively engaged in gathering detailed information about the project. Impacts [of the Wildcat Loadout expansion] are being analyzed to determine if the project is likely or not to have significant effects. According to policy, the [BLM] is following the process outlined in 40 CFR 1501.3 to determine the appropriate level of [National Environmental Policy Act] review. Currently BLM Utah is researching, assessing, and documenting impacts.”
The agency then provided a link to the BLM National NEPA Register.
Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu, asked about the county’s successful lawsuit against the STB stalling if not stopping the railway project and its possible ripple effects on the truck-to-rails loadout expansion, had this advice for the BLM: “I would encourage them to read this [federal appeals court] order.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and more than a dozen other conservation groups on Aug. 25 notified the BLM in letter that D.C. appeals court decision “makes even more clear that BLM can’t approve a right-of-way to increase the capacity of the Wildcat Loadout without a robust analysis of the Loadout’s upstream and downstream impacts.”
The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year reported the Wildcat Loadout had become Utah’s “busiest oil terminal under its ownership by the basin’s top oil producers, Texas-based Finley Resources. The company acquired a 50% stake in the Wildcat Loadout three years ago and has been loading 21,000 barrels a day on eastbound tanker cars, according to the company’s owner Jim Finley.” The expansion of the facility is being proposed by Coal Energy Group 2 LLC.
Utah conservation groups have strenuously objected to the increase oil truck traffic on area roads that bisect critical archeological sites boasting some of the most significant Native American petroglyphs in the nation.
Here’s the entire letter to the BLM from Bennet and Neguse:
The Honorable Tracy Stone-Manning Director
Bureau of Land Management
1849 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20240
Dear Director Stone-Manning:
Congress of the United States
Washington, D.C. 20510
September 7, 2023
We write to share our concerns about the potential Wildcat Loadout expansion project’s effects on Colorado’s communities, water, land, air, and climate. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Utah State Office is currently evaluating this project, which would increase the facility’s capacity in Price, Utah. This would enable the shipment of up to an additional one billion gallons of waxy crude oil per year from Utah’s Uinta Basin through Colorado on an average of one two- mile-long train every day. These trains are proposed to run for over 100 miles alongside the Colorado River’s headwaters – a vital water supply for nearly 40 million Americans, 30 Tribal nations, and millions of acres of agricultural land. Given this project’s potential dangers, we urge BLM to conduct a full and robust environmental impact statement (EIS) that takes into account all the risks posed to Colorado, rather than a cursory environmental assessment (EA) of the proposed expansion.
A train derailment that spills oil in the Colorado River’s headwaters would be disastrous to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation assets, and the broader Colorado River Basin. In addition, an accident on the train line further increases wildfire risk at a time when the West already faces historically dry conditions.
We previously have raised similar concerns regarding the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in Utah, which would ship up to 4.6 billion gallons of waxy crude oil per year through Colorado. Recently, a federal court overruled the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) approval of the project, which was based on a deeply flawed environmental and risk analysis, and ordered a new review.1 In light of the court’s decision, the BLM should not repeat the STB’s mistakes, and instead conduct a robust environmental review. The BLM cannot adequately account for potential harm from increased oil shipments through Colorado with an EA, given its lower requirements for public involvement and environmental analysis.
Many Colorado communities have raised concerns about how the Wildcat Loadout expansion and the Uinta Basin Railway would increase oil train traffic and potential railway accidents that could harm water quality and wildlife, and enhance wildfire risk. Please see attached letters from Eagle County, Colorado and the city of Glenwood Springs on the Wildcat Loadout expansion and from numerous Colorado local governments, organizations, and residents on the Uinta Basin Railway.
We urge BLM to prepare a full EIS that accounts for the full risks of the Wildcat Loadout expansion to Colorado’s communities, water supplies, and environment.
We look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.
Michael F. Bennet United States Senator
Joe Neguse Member of Congress
1 Eagle County, Colo. v. Surface Transportation Board, — F.4th — (D.C. Cir. Aug. 18, 2023).