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Oil refiner Tesoro is proposing a 135-mile insulated pipeline connecting the Uinta Basin with Salt Lake City-area refineries in the hopes of reducing truck traffic by up to 250 trips a day.
It would also ease a transportation bottleneck that state officials say is holding back development on Utah's busiest oil patch and costing the state's economy billions. But environmentalists fear adding such infrastructure further commits Utah to a dirty energy future.
Because of its high paraffin content, Uinta's waxy crude must remain warm in transit, reducing producers' options for where they send their oil and reducing the price it fetches.
Last week, the U.S. Forest Service published the refiner's notice of intent to seek authorization for the Uinta Express Pipeline, triggering a federal environmental review expected to take at least a year.
Still, Tesoro hopes to have the 12-inch underground line running by early 2017, according to Michael Gebhardt, vice president of business development for the Texas-based company that operates refineries in North Salt Lake and five other U.S. cities.
The pipeline would move up to 60,000 barrels a day, pushing the oil from its starting point west of Myton to the refineries in 40 hours.
"There is a great need for it," said Cody Stewart, Gov. Gary Herbert's energy policy advisor. Uinta crude "is a unique product in that it has to be refined in a special way and is hard to transport ... [The pipeline] addresses a unique Utah problem."
Uinta's black wax crude must remain above 95 degrees and yellow wax above 115 degrees or it's liable to congeal.
"If the oil stops moving [in the pipeline], how do you keep it from turning it into a candle? We are not in the candle-making business," Gebhardt said.
The company is exploring two technological options. One would put heat tracers on the outside of the pipe's .375-inch wall, while the other would place four 25,000-barrel heated break-out tanks along the line. These tanks would only be filled in rare situations when flow stops, Gebhardt said.
The line would follow routes of existing pipelines operated by Chevron, Questar and Kern River. The latter two move natural gas.
"We want to minimize impact to sensitive areas and communities and maximize use of designated corridors and utilities," Gebhardt said.
At times, the line would switch to corridors used by Questar and Kern River to avoid populated areas, so it is several miles longer than if it simply followed the Chevron line. The line would be buried below the frost line at a depth of three to five feet.
Currently, there is no rail service to move oil out of the basin, although some is trucked down U.S. Highway 191 and loaded onto east-bound rail cars at the Price River Terminal in Wellington. Chevron operates two pipelines across the basin, moving Colorado crude to Salt Lake City. A small amount of Uinta oil is mixed in with that product for delivery to the refineries.
Trucks haul most Uinta oil west over U.S. 40, which passes down Heber City's Main Street, and Interstates 80 and 15. An insulated pipeline would benefit air quality and highway safety by taking "an awful lot of trucks off the road," said Lee Peacock, executive director of the Utah Petroleum Association.
But environmentalists aren't so eager to see investments that would further promote the basin's oil boom, especially if it facilitates oil shale mining.
"This calls into question the state's position on climate change. Ever-expanding fossil fuel industrialization is moving us in the opposite direction climate scientists say we should go," said Taylor McKinnon, energy policy director for the Grand Canyon Trust.
He pointed to the 2010 Red Butte spills, when the Chevron pipeline disgorged 54,600 gallons of crude oil, much of it into a Salt Lake City creek, to make a key point.
"There are no safe ways to transport oil. Pipelines fail, just as trains and trucks fail," McKinnon said. "That means more pollution for waterways and communities along the way."
Statistically, however, pipelines are the safest and most efficient way to move oil and other products, according to Gebhardt. To minimize spill damage, the new pipeline will have leak detection equipment and remotely activated valves.
For better or worse, Uinta Basin oil and gas production is increasing and expected to double by 2022 to the equivalent of 50 million barrels a year. Much of that growth is expected to come from tar sands and oil shale, which exists in abundance in the basin but has yet to be commercially developed. Currently Duchesne and Uintah counties account for more than two-thirds of Utah's oil and gas production and generate revenues of $2.5 billion. Energy development supports half of the jobs in the area.
But a recent Utah Department of Transportation study concluded that inadequate transportation infrastructure could cost producers $24 billion in lost revenue over the next decade.
A pipeline designed to accommodate waxy crude "helps solve a problem we have been dealing with for a number of years; the sooner they can have a solution on the table the better," Stewart said.
The proposed alignment crosses mostly private land, but 14 miles are within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. It would originate near Myton and follow the Chevron line for its first 40 miles to Francis on the western edge of the Uinta Mountains. From there it would veer north, following Questar gas lines to Coalville, where it would turn west toward the Wasatch crest along the Kern River line and exit the mountains at Bountiful.
From there it would connect to the five refineries along Interstate 15 on the Davis-Salt Lake county line. As a common-carrier line, it would be available to all the refineries.
Tesoro operates Salt Lake City's largest refinery with a 58,000-barrel-a-day capacity. It recently won approval to expand operations to handle growth in Uinta production.
Learn more, comment on the proposed pipeline
The U.S. Forest Service is hosting two open houses on the proposed pipeline.
Feb. 19: Heber City, Wasatch High School, 6 to 8 p.m.
Feb. 20: Bountiful, Bountiful High School, 6 to 8 p.m.
Comments should be sent to Nelson Gonzalez-Sullow, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest Supervisor's Office, 857 W. South Jordan Parkway, South Jordan, UT 84095-8594, or by email email@example.com.