The Utah Department of Transportation, with support from Duchesne and Uintah counties, is looking for ways to move more oil and gas from the state's mineral belt to refineries in the Salt Lake Valley. The agency just completed a preliminary study and is now preparing to compile an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) outlining various road and/or rail alternatives to boost Utah's already thriving oil business.
The outcome of that process could have a profound effect on Summit County, which straddles the route between the oil fields and the refineries
According to the study, oil and gas production in the Uintah Basin is on track to double within the next 10 years. Utah's energy industry currently accounts for three percent of the state's economic output and 50 percent of the jobs in the Uintah Basin. Those numbers could climb quickly if only the energy companies could get more product to the refineries and get it there faster.
Those who backed the study make strong arguments for investing in transportation alternatives that will expedite that growth, citing statistics that suggest the state could lose $30 billion in lost production without those improvements.
The study points out the obvious the current route from the oil fields to the refineries is inadequate to handle the expected increase in truck traffic. Right now, as many as 100 double-trailer oil tankers a day rumble through Heber City on US40 before turning westward onto Interstate 80 at Silver Creek Junction.
One alternative likely to come under consideration is construction of a bypass route around Heber City's business district. Right now, those unwieldy trucks run right down Main Street in Heber, creating an unnecessary hazard for local foot, bike and car traffic. The highway-bound truck traffic also diminishes the street's otherwise small-town western ambiance. It is a change that, regardless of the oil and gas traffic, is long overdue.
But then what? Will there be 200 tanker trucks a day weaving past Quinn's and Silver Creek junctions? Will hybrid-driving environmentalists be sandwiched between oil-laden tankers belching exhaust as they climb Parleys? Summit County representatives also need to be at the table to mitigate those issues.
We also hope the EIS process will include other alternatives besides building bigger highways to accommodate more traffic. Among them building refineries closer to the oil fields, establishing a rail connection between the Uintah Basin and the refineries or building additional pipelines.
More importantly, we hope that other agencies are also studying the potential environmental impacts of this projected increase in oil and gas production. Yes, the energy industry augments the state's economy. But it comes with a cost. Last winter a state study found ozone levels in the Uintah Basin were double the amount considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The oil industry is out in front of the transportation challenges. But who is looking ahead at the environmental impacts?