The City: In Denver, oil trains hit a fork in the road to Colorado’s transportation future
City Council kills rail-safety ordinance ahead of Uinta Basin Railway’s potential quadrupling of hazmat traffic
A freight train derailed at the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City on June 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
A freight train derailed at the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City on June 16, 2023. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
This is Part 5 of Down the Line, a Newsline series tracing the route that eastbound oil trains from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway in Utah could soon take through western and central Colorado.
Part 5: The City
Click here for an overview of “Down the Line.”
COAL CREEK, Colo. — As trains heading east from the Moffat Tunnel take one last sharp turn along a ridge near Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder County, the scenery changes abruptly.
After traveling hundreds of miles east through narrow river gorges and rugged alpine forests, the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through Colorado emerges at last onto a high ridgeline offering dramatic views of the Denver metro area and the vast, empty Eastern Plains stretching out into the distance.
Over the next 10 miles, the railroad drops roughly 1,000 feet in elevation, meaning this section of track approaches a 2% grade, near the practical limit for major freight lines. To accomplish the steep descent, trains complete a looping series of turns at a landmark known as Big Ten Curve, where a line of disused cement-filled rail cars buried to one side of the track serves as a windbreak, placed there in the 1960s after repeated derailments caused by high winds blowing across the foothills.
With one final turn, trains leave the mountains behind for good, passing just south of the site of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant and bearing down directly into the heart of Colorado’s largest population center.
Within just a few years, this could be the route traveled daily by as many as five fully-loaded, two-mile-long crude oil trains from the Uinta Basin in eastern Utah. The additional traffic from the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, backed by a public-private partnership and granted key approvals by President Joe Biden’s administration, could quadruple the amount of hazardous materials transported by rail through Denver, city officials estimate.
This week, three Denver-area members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, Jason Crow and Brittany Pettersen, all Democrats — joined a chorus of Colorado elected officials who have come out in opposition to the railway project. Echoing objections made by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Joe Neguse of Lafayette, the lawmakers faulted the federal approval process for neglecting to fully evaluate the impact the railway could have on Colorado.
“We believe transporting crude oil along the Colorado River is a risk we cannot afford to take,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Were a train to derail, it would be frontline communities who bear the brunt of the damage, in the air they breathe and the water they drink.”
Buttigieg and the U.S. Department of Transportation could soon face a decision on whether to approve the Uinta Basin Railway’s application for $2 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, the group of Utah county governments that has led the project’s planning and permitting, said earlier this year that it would seek the bonds, which would save the railway tens of millions of dollars annually in financing costs.
Federal regulators estimated in a “downline analysis” that the increased traffic from the Uinta Basin Railway could cause roughly one train accident a year between Kyune, Utah and Denver. Accidents severe enough to cause a spill of up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, they predicted, would occur roughly once every five years.
With the prospect of the railway’s construction looming, environmental advocates and communities along the downline route fear that those risks could be compounded by inaction at every level of government.
In the wake of a February derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, and other recent train accidents — including a bridge collapse that caused a hazmat spill into the Yellowstone River in Montana last week — a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington has taken up rail safety legislation, which is currently pending on the Senate floor. Prospects for the bill’s passage by the Republican-controlled House, however, are uncertain, and sponsors have already pared back some of its key provisions.
In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has largely remained on the sidelines of the Uinta Basin Railway issue, though a spokesperson said he opposes the project’s application for the tax-exempt bonds. State agencies like the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Public Utilities Commission have limited authority over the rail industry, though some General Assembly lawmakers want to see the state take a more active role.
And at the local level, rail safety advocates were left bitterly disappointed this week when a majority of Denver City Council members voted to kill a proposed ordinance that would have more strictly regulated land use around freight rail corridors. The measure’s sponsor, longtime City Council Member-at-Large Debbie Ortega, accused outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration of a “strategic effort to completely undermine” a years-long process to develop the policy.
In the Denver metro area, the railway’s potential risks were underlined by an oil-train derailment earlier this month at the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City. A spokesperson for BNSF said that 16 of the 17 derailed tank cars were empty and “no hazardous materials were involved.”
“This is another reminder that derailments are far too common,” Bennet wrote on Twitter. “Had the train cars been full, this would have been a catastrophe. That’s why I’m pushing to stop Uinta (Basin) Railway oil trains from moving through our state.”
📍 Mile 293: Leyden
A ‘carbon bomb’
In the early summer, the broad, grassy slopes of the foothills beneath Coal Creek Canyon, green and full of blooming wildflowers, appear pristine and unspoiled — but looks can be deceiving.
To the north, the site of the Rocky Flats Plant, which manufactured plutonium pits for nuclear weapons until it was shut down in 1992, has been converted into a wildlife refuge, but longstanding fears about radioactive contamination persist. To the south, a landfill and a natural-gas-fired power plant operate next to residential developments built on the site of the former coal company town of Leyden.
Railroad tycoon David Moffat bought the Leyden Coal Mine in 1902, using it to supply coal both to his Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway over the mountains, better known as the Moffat Road, and to the Denver Tramway Company, which he owned jointly with other city grandees. Not unusually for the time, the Leyden mine experienced its share of deadly disasters, and workers there in 1908 likened it to a “penal colony.”
Denver Tramway ended its streetcar service in 1950, replacing its fleet with buses, and the Leyden mine was shuttered a year later. With the rise of the interstate highway system after World War II, “interurban” rail service was quickly disappearing in Colorado and across the country.
“It was a sad occasion to those who preferred the relatively smooth ride in an interurban car to the more confined jerkey ride in a bus with its accompanying exhaust fumes,” lamented the Colorado Transcript when the last passenger car left Golden for Denver on July 2, 1950.
“It’s a natural progression that railroads fall out of favor, particularly for passengers,” said Paul Hammond, director of the Colorado Railroad Museum. “And of course, the growth of the interstate highway network creates an avenue for trucks to get around in ways that they had never been able to before.”
The car-centric, oil-dependent consumer economy that fueled U.S. growth in the postwar years had profound consequences, beginning with the supply shocks and geopolitical crises of the 1970s, and continuing in the boom-and-bust disruptions that impacted the Western Slope and Denver’s oil industry in the 1980s. But most profound of all is the impact the country’s dependency on oil has had on the Earth’s climate, with tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and other forms of transportation now ranked as the leading source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change has hit particularly hard in the American West, where a relatively wet winter and spring haven’t changed long-term projections for aridification that will continue to stress water supplies and increase wildfire risk in the decades to come.
“We’re seeing with each day the climate emergency unfolding all around us,” said Deeda Seed, senior Utah campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, which has sued to block the railway project.
After a two-year environmental review process, the federal Surface Transportation Board voted 4-1 in December 2021 to approve the Uinta Basin Railway. The lone vote against the project’s approval was the board’s chairman, Martin Oberman, who wrote a blistering dissent faulting the STB’s decision for neglecting to consider “the harm caused to the environment by downstream combustion of increased oil production enabled by the Line’s construction.”
Oberman further called into question what global efforts to transition to clean energy meant for the railway’s financial viability, raising the possibility “that it would be the public — and not private investors — who would bear the cost of constructing an ultimately unprofitable rail project.”
Such concerns have led major players in Utah’s oil industry to attempt a rebrand of their signature product. Compared to other kinds of crude oil, more of the Uinta Basin’s “waxy” crude — named for its high degree of paraffin, or wax — can be used for lubricants and in other industrial applications.
Jim Finley, CEO of Finley Resources, the Uinta Basin’s largest oil producer, estimates that as much as 25% to 30% of its waxy crude can be put to “non-combustible” uses, compared to less than 10% for a typical crude.
“We have taken the word ‘crude oil’ out of our vocabulary,” Finley told board members of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in an October 2021 meeting. “We drill for wax, we produce wax, we ship wax on rail, and we support the wax railroad.”
We drill for wax, we produce wax, we ship wax on rail, and we support the wax railroad.
– Jim Finley, CEO of Utah oil producer Finley Resources
That sales pitch isn’t winning over the railway’s environmentalist critics. The project’s own backers estimated that it could increase total production in the basin by 350,000 barrels of oil per day, an output that could add up to over a billion barrels over the course of a few decades, even if only 70% of its oil is combusted. The result would be a significantly greater emissions impact than even Biden’s approval earlier this year of the Willow Project in Alaska, denounced by critics like former Vice President Al Gore as “recklessly irresponsible” and “a recipe for climate chaos.”
“It’s just enormous,” said Kate Christensen, an activist with Stop the Uinta Basin Railway, a coalition of Utah and Colorado environmental groups. “The amount of oil they’re going to frack out of this basin if they can build this railway will be catastrophic. It’s absolutely a carbon bomb ready to go off.”
📍 Mile 300: Arvada
Colorado’s railroading future
For a two-mile stretch east of Olde Town Arvada, the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor runs in parallel with light-rail passenger trains on the Regional Transportation District’s G Line, opened in 2019 after years of delays.
The G Line was one of six new passenger lines envisioned by the RTD FasTracks program passed by area voters in 2004, but challenges have mounted for the transit agency in recent years. A persistent operator shortage has lowered service reliability and forestalled expansion plans. Ridership still hasn’t fully rebounded from a pandemic-era collapse, and the expiration of federal aid programs has clouded the agency’s financial future.
Climate activists and supporters of multimodal transportation have called on local and state officials to do more to pull RTD out of its tailspin, and to further expand transit options that reduce car dependency. It’s a vision that, in large part, centers on a modern-day revival of the regional and interurban passenger lines that connected Colorado communities to one another in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Plans for intercity passenger rail service throughout the Interstate 25 corridor took a major step forward in 2021, when Colorado lawmakers established the Front Range Passenger Rail District with a mandate to make the long-planned line from Pueblo as far north as Cheyenne, Wyoming, a reality. Other plans for short-line service have been put forward in mountain areas, including even more ambitious proposals like a new train corridor along Interstate 70 west of Denver, studied by the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2014.
Such plans could come with high price tags. But Hammond notes that no mode of passenger transportation can exist without public subsidies, and how to allocate that funding is a “policy choice.”
“Who makes money off of the interstate highways?” Hammond said. “Airports are put together usually by counties. If the airlines had to finance every airport that they landed at, it would be a very different cost proposition.”
Freight rail, too, has a part to play in a clean-energy future, rail workers and environmental advocates say. So-called intermodal shipping, which involves moving containers of goods on flatbed freight cars over long distances before loading them onto shorter-range trucks, can be a more efficient and climate-friendly form of transport — especially if emerging technologies like battery-powered locomotives continue to mature.
“I don’t know that an electric semi is ever going to be able to haul a heavy load over Vail Pass,” said Carl Smith, the Colorado legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART. “But I know a freight train full of containers can get it to Grand Junction, can get it to Glenwood Springs, and then that electric truck only has to go 50 miles or less, with a much smaller load.”
But if new investments in intermodal shipping and revived passenger service make up one possible future for Colorado’s aging rail infrastructure and its dwindling rail workforce, the Uinta Basin Railway represents an entirely different vision. In effect, it would replace declining coal-train traffic on Colorado railroads with high volumes of another heavy-industrial commodity, in one of the largest sustained efforts to transport crude oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S.
The railway’s projected traffic impacts — as many as five full oil trains eastbound through Denver each day, with five empty ones returning — have drawn widespread concerns that Uinta Basin trains would exceed the capacity of the Union Pacific’s Central Corridor through the Moffat Tunnel.
That would raise the possibility of the reopening of the defunct Tennessee Pass line between Leadville and Cañon City, which has been out of service since 1997. The segment’s steep grades, dismal safety record and deteriorated condition make it even more of a concern for many Coloradans than the Moffat Tunnel route. Rio Grande Pacific, the short-line railroad operator that plans to build the Uinta Basin Railway in partnership with the SCIC, is also involved with a proposal to restore tourism-focused passenger trains on Tennessee Pass, though it has assured officials in nearby communities that it doesn’t plan to transport oil on the route.
In an emailed statement, Union Pacific said it has “no plans of reopening the Tennessee Pass.”
“In the recent past, train traffic on the Utah to Denver corridor was nearly three times what it is today, in large part, because of a decline in coal trains,” the company said. “This line has the capacity to handle additional trains.”
But without additional specificity, or binding actions like the line’s formal abandonment, communities worried about the reopening of Tennessee Pass say these assurances don’t mean much.
“What they say, they may think now, but money is typically what drives decisions, no matter what anybody thinks right now,” said Matt Scherr, a commissioner in Eagle County, which has sued to overturn the Uinta Basin Railway’s approval. “We just don’t have any confidence that that’s a guarantee.”
📍 Mile 304: Denver
Rail safety ordinance defeated
More than 300 miles after entering Colorado through the remote wilderness of Ruby Canyon, eastbound trains approach a point known historically as Utah Junction, in a dense industrial zone near the intersection of Interstates 70 and 25.
Beneath the dull roar of the highway viaducts to the south and east, Union Pacific and BNSF, the two companies that control virtually all of the state’s major rail routes, share the sprawling North Yard facility, which straddles the border between the City and County of Denver and unincorporated Adams County.
Denver would be the most populous city that many Uinta Basin oil trains would pass through en route to refineries in Louisiana or Oklahoma. But outside a dedicated community of climate and environmental activists, opposition to the Uinta Basin Railway in the Mile High City has been relatively muted.
“I wish that Denver was more activated about this, because our air quality is so bad,” Christensen said. “You don’t hear anything from Denver like you do the mountain communities.”
The lack of public outcry in Denver is in part, environmental-justice activists say, a function of which communities would be most affected by increased rail traffic.
Predominantly low-income and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s north side have long been in closest proximity to the rail yards and industrial spurs used heavily by Union Pacific and BNSF freight trains. A 2022 report by advocacy group GreenLatinos cited longstanding concerns like pollution from idling diesel locomotives, dust from coal trains and pedestrian safety risks, and it faulted the rail industry for a lack of publicly available freight-traffic data.
“Derailments happen on the mainline. They happen in Globeville. We’ve seen it,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, GreenLatinos’ Colorado state director.
“We have legitimate alternatives to moving these goods,” he added. “We’re exporting oil for these multinational companies to pay out their dividends, and in the end, we take the harm.”
City officials have estimated that the Uinta Basin Railway could quadruple the amount of hazardous materials that travel daily through Denver within the next few years.
That looming increase, along with heightened fears following the East Palestine derailment and other recent train accidents, added new urgency to a decade-long push by Ortega, the City Council member, to more strictly regulate land use around railroad rights-of-way. Ortega’s proposed ordinance would have implemented a 100-foot setback between new buildings and railroad tracks, unless mitigation measures were implemented.
Derailments happen on the mainline. They happen in Globeville. We’ve seen it.
– Ean Thomas Tafoya, GreenLatinos Colorado state director
Ortega’s ordinance drew opposition from Hancock’s administration and real-estate development interests. In a letter to City Council, Rhys Duggan, the developer behind billionaire Stan Kroenke’s River Mile project in downtown Denver, faulted the proposed ordinance for seeking to “address a safety issue that seems to rank well behind other more pressing public safety concerns in the city, such as homelessness, addiction (and) violent crime.”
In a 7-5 vote on Monday, Denver City Council killed the measure.
“It’s not good policy,” Council member Amanda Sandoval said of Ortega’s ordinance prior to Monday’s vote. “I cannot be in favor of something where four major departments come out (against) it.”
In place of additional rail safety rules, emergency-management officials from Hancock’s administration told Council members they plan to request funding in next year’s budget to develop a mass evacuation plan for the city.
Ortega, who will soon leave office after serving on City Council in two separate stints for a total of 28 years, said the measure’s defeat after a years-long process to study the issue and develop recommendations was unlike anything she’d experienced in her time in office.
“To just have this letter that basically is sandbagging this whole process that we’ve been engaged in collectively, without any additional recommendations of how we can do this differently, it just befuddles me,” Ortega said. “I don’t know what really is behind the opposition.”
“I’m going to be going away, but this problem is not,” she added. “You have seen more and more of these derailments happening … and if we have the Uinta Basin shipments coming through here, that quadruples the amount of petroleum products that will come through our city on a daily basis.”
Across Civic Center Park, state lawmakers on the Transportation Legislation Review Committee plan to discuss rail safety in hearings this summer, the committee’s chair, Democratic state Rep. Meg Froelich of Greenwood Village, said earlier this month.
Smith said the SMART union wants to see lawmakers pass additional rail safety laws, including limits on train length and mandating the installation of railway sensors, like so-called hot-box detectors, which can warn operators before high temperatures from wheel friction cause equipment to fail.
Some opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway have been frustrated by a lack of state-level action on the issue. To date, while nearly every Democratic member of Colorado’s congressional delegation, along with Attorney General Phil Weiser, has lodged protests with federal officials over the railway, Polis hasn’t publicly been a part of any such effort.
“We haven’t heard boo from Polis,” Christensen said. “He’s letting these small mountain communities take on the oil and gas industry on their own, and doesn’t seem to have their back.”
In an email, Polis spokesperson Katherine Jones said the governor “supports the state actively evaluating potential impacts to state equities through the opportunities that exist, and has made clear to agencies that they should make these evaluations and weigh in where appropriate.” She indicated that Polis opposes the issuance of federal private activity bonds to support the railway.
“We do not want funding being diverted from the state’s key transportation needs for projects that could have damaging impacts to our rail infrastructure, adjacent road infrastructure like I-70 or the state’s key recreation and outdoor resources,” Jones wrote.
Up and down the line
Before oil trains from the Uinta Basin reach Denver, they’ll have to travel 300 miles through western and central Colorado. Before that, they’ll have to travel more than 150 miles on the existing Union Pacific tracks in Utah. And before that, they’ll have to traverse 88 miles of remote desert and pine forest on the Uinta Basin Railway itself.
Although concerns about the railway have been most acutely felt in Colorado, opponents say the oil trains will pose risks along all 500 of those miles, all the way up the line to the Ashley National Forest and the Duchesne River watershed.
“This is 88 miles of new rail construction, and just that alone would create tremendous environmental harm — everything from negatively impacting water quality to destroying sage grouse habitat,” said Seed. “But then when you add into the mix the climate impacts of this, it gets even worse.”
After passing through Denver, most of the Uinta Basin oil trains would then head for refineries in Texas and Louisiana, federal regulators estimated, with a smaller percentage bound for Oklahoma. Using industry routing models, the STB’s downline analysis determined that most of the trains would travel north or northeast out of Denver, while a smaller amount of traffic would be routed south along the I-25 corridor, or east along I-70.
At a time when scientists have issued increasingly urgent warnings about the need to rapidly and dramatically lower greenhouse gas emissions, the Uinta Basin’s increased production could raise total annual U.S. emissions by nearly 1%, regulators estimated.
“Is the Line worth all of this given the activity it is intended to support?” Oberman, the STB’s chair, wrote in his 2021 dissent against the railway’s approval. “Without evidence that there is some particularized need for oil from the Basin, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and given the irrefutable fact that this oil’s use will contribute to the global warming crisis, I cannot say that it is.”
The railway’s proponents, led by the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, are adamant that the increased rail traffic will pose no undue risks to Colorado and other states on the downline route, writing in an op-ed earlier this month that though they “understand that project opponents feel the need to be heard,” the Uinta Basin’s toxic waxy crude “does not present an environmental concern if there were a derailment.”
“These things and far more are already going through their backyard every day,” Keith Heaton, the SCIC’s executive director, said in an interview. “The waxy crude, and the way we’re intending to do it, is probably one of the least of their worries in life … The logistics of all of this make it relatively speaking pretty safe and harmless.”
SCIC representatives said at the coalition’s June meeting that they plan to submit an application for the tax-exempt private activity bonds “in the near future,” setting up a potentially pivotal decision for Buttigieg and the DOT.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration will say no, because this sort of thing is so entirely contrary to their stated policies about addressing the climate crisis,” Seed said.
Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation wrote in a letter to Buttigieg this year that there is “no precedent” for the approval of private activity bonds to finance industrial fossil-fuel infrastructure, and opponents say that the railway’s decision to apply for them is a sign that the project is already on shaky financial ground.
“This is such a sketchy project. It’s highly speculative,” Seed said. “It seems like they’re having trouble raising the money.”
Led by Bennet and Neguse, Colorado officials have asked at least four different federal agencies to intervene to halt or re-analyze the project. Although the U.S. Forest Service last year said it would issue a key permit for a railroad right-of-way through a protected area, it has not yet issued a so-called record of decision under the National Environmental Policy Act, meaning that it could still choose to deny the permit.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by Eagle County, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups is pending, after oral arguments were heard in May by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. If the court finds fault with the STB’s decision, it could choose to overturn the decision entirely, though it’s more likely, several plaintiffs said, that it would remand the case back to the agency with instructions to more closely scrutinize downline impacts and potential mitigation measures.
For many people in Colorado, however, the risks of the Uinta Basin Railway will likely always be too great to shoulder, the worst-case scenarios too numerous to count. If the railway is built, Colorado communities could face decades of anxiety about the potentially catastrophic consequences it could one day bring to their doorsteps — a truck crash in Palisade, a fire in Dotsero, a spill in Fraser, an explosion in Globeville. History and the STB’s accident analysis leave no doubt: As the years pass, the likelihood that disaster will strike at some point, somewhere down the line, grows closer to a statistical certainty.
“What we’ve seen with all of these disasters is lots of assurances from both (industries) and the railroads themselves saying that things are safe. They’re clearly not — at least not to the extent that I think the public expects,” Scherr, the Eagle County commissioner, said. “There is an accepted rate of incident, because they have those formulas, and they expect them.”
“When we’ve seen all these disasters, the public is clearly not in agreement with what may be an acceptable level of risk,” he continued. “When you increase volume, you will increase incidents. And what those incidents look like are varied, including derailments, which in this case risks dumping that freight into the water supply for 40 million people downstream.”
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