Summit County straddles a major crude-oil transportation route that is going to get busier.
At one end are the Uintah Basin oil fields and, at the other, a daisy chain of refineries north of Salt Lake City.
According to Utah State Senator Kevin VanTassell (R-Vernal), who hails from the heart of Utah's oil country, major producers like the Newfield Exploration Company are expanding their drilling operations and the refineries in Salt Lake City are planning commensurate expansions to keep up with the expected increase in deliveries.
That's good news for Utah's economy, says VanTassell, whose senate district includes Daggett, Duchesne, Summit, Uintah, Wasatch counties, but it also presents some serious transportation concerns.
"If production rises to 40,000 barrels a day, that's 130 trucks or more in a 24-hour period," he said. According to VanTassell, within three to four years, increases in oil production will dramatically increase the number two oil tankers traveling along US 40 from Vernal to the Silver Creek interchange and westward on I80 into Salt Lake City.
Van Tassell isn't complaining. He is a vocal proponent of mineral resource development, but he also believes in being proactive.
"My guess is it will be a gradual increase and we have a little time to get some public input," he said.
To that end, VanTassell, who chairs the Utah Legislature's Interim Transportation Committee, has introduced a proposal to study the potential impact of an increase in tanker traffic on US 40, particularly as it passes through Uintah, Duchesne and Wasatch counties, where the highway encounters steep grades, two-lane sections and cross traffic. Of particular concern to Wasatch County is the fact that US 40 does double duty as Heber's Main Street.
Van Tassell wants the study to look at every possible alternative, including expanding parts of the existing highway, moving the oil by rail, and possibly refining the sludge-like crude oil in the Basin so that it can be piped instead of needing to be transported via insulated tanker trucks.
"The timeline is to try to get the preliminary study completed in March by the end of the legislative session," he said.
So far, though, Summit County has not been in on the discussions.
Jason Davis, Utah Department of Transportation's director of Region 2, which includes Summit County, said the tanker traffic would not have a significant impact here. "Right now we definitely have the capacity to handle increased load safely and efficiently on US 40 and I-80 (in Summit County). According to Davis, with two lanes of traffic in both directions on the Summit County section of US 40, and up to six lanes on I-80, "nobody would notice" the additional tankers.
When asked if there would be concerns about more truck traffic on the flyover from US 40 to westbound I80, Davis said UDOT is considering adding de-icing equipment to mitigate winter driving on the flyover but added that was "not in response to the truck traffic."
Keith Schmidt, senior communication coordinator for Newfield, said the company is aware of the transportation challenges and emphasized that the "growth of the field will be gradual, as will the increase in transport trucks." He confirmed that a study could look at transporting the oil by rail or pipeline but that it is "premature to go into detail."
According to Schmidt, the Basin's oil, known as black wax or yellow wax, is in great demand, but, due to its high paraffin content, which congeals into solid state at room temperature, is hard to move through a pipeline, necessitating the specially insulated tanker trucks that are anticipated to roll through Summit County at a steadily increasing pace.
Newfield is already transporting about 25,000 barrels of oil per day, which translates into 90-100 trucks a day. Schmidt said the trucks run 24/7, which reduces congestion. In an email this week he explained: "Our ramp up will be gradual, increasing over the next few years to 40,000 barrels of oil per day. The trucking would increase to approximately 140-150 trucks a day over a 24-hour period at that level of production."
Cory Pope, director of systems planning for UDOT, said the study, which is jointly funded by local counties, business groups and UDOT, is still just getting off the ground and has primarily involved local officials from Uintah County, Duchesne County, and The Uintah Transportation Special Service District. But, he said, there will be opportunities for Summit County to get involved in the process if the study moves forward.
In the meantime, Kraig Powell (R-Heber City) who represents both Summit and Wasatch counties in the state Legislature sees the trucks passing by on a daily basis. "My office on Heber's Main Street sits 12 feet away from the highway. We joke tongue in cheek that we live on an oil line that is sometimes interrupted by passenger vehicles."
Powell disagrees with Davis's comment that people won't notice the increase in tanker trucks through Summit County. "Everyone in Summit and Wasatch counties will notice those kinds of numbers," he said, adding that there are concerns about driver safety with the higher volume of larger vehicles.
Like VanTassell, Powell also serves on the interim transportation committee. "I am going to make sure local government officials are involved in every aspect of this study," he said.