The Grand County Council voted unanimously on April 15 to approve a letter that voices the county’s interest in joining a Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) study of the Uintah Basin. The move comes weeks after the council asked the Uintah County Commission if it would be interested in teaming up on a similar project to study the idea of building a transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs’ Sego Canyon.
UDOT is already in the midst of a basin-wide transportation study of the Vernal area, and if the agency approves the council’s request to join in, the work will come at no cost to the county, according to Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson.
Grand County Council vice chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said she believes that it would behoove the county to become involved in the UDOT study, since that process is already underway.
But local resident Kiley Miller urged the council to consider the input from 182 citizens who have urged the county to abandon the idea of building new corridors through the Book Cliffs.
Miller said she understands that the county is just writing letters of interest at this point. By doing so, however, the council is aiding efforts to open the area up to increasing industrialization, she said.
Proposed energy projects in the area would affect regional air quality and contribute to global climate change, while threatening the county’s tourist industry, Miller said.
A 2013 report from UDOT, Uintah County and other study participants acknowledges that future energy development in the Uintah Basin would come with social and environmental costs. Natural resources and habitats, along with cultural resources, could be affected by new energy projects, and those impacts must be addressed, according to the report.
However, the same report found the Uintah Basin will need to make significant improvements to its transportation network in order to keep up with projected growth in the oil and gas industry.
Existing oil and gas pipelines are already at or near capacity, and traffic on several key roads will grow to the point that it will limit oil and gas production in the basin by 2020, the report says.
Unless that transportation network is upgraded, the report found that the state and regional economies could lose more than $10 billion over 30 years.
On the other hand, improvements to the network would lead to more than $64 billion in new net economic activity through 2042, while creating about 26,800 jobs over the next three decades, according to the report.
“Even though the cost of the necessary transportation improvements might be significant, net economic gains associated with such investments are also likely to be significant enough to justify the investment,” the report says.
While several different new routes have been mentioned, there’s growing interest in the idea of a transportation corridor through Sego Canyon, according to Jackson.
As Jackson has envisioned it, private companies could pay for the development of a corridor through the Book Cliffs that would allow energy companies to move their products out of the Uintah Basin.
If Congress passes legislation that transferred ownership of the corridor to Grand County, the county might be able to charge shipping fees on each load of hydrocarbons that passes through the area, Jackson said earlier this year.
A three-member council study committee hopes to make that happen by including a proposed Sego Canyon transportation corridor in each of its three alternatives for long-term congressional designations of public lands in Grand County. The full council plans to forward one of those alternatives on to Rep. Rob Bishop’s office, following an April 23 public meeting at the Grand Center and an additional public comment period that will run through May 2.
Since the county published those alternatives last week, Jackson said he’s heard from people who say that a proposed Sego Canyon transportation corridor is a “deal killer.”
“I’m not happy about that,” he said.
Grand Canyon Trust wildlands program associate Jane Butter added her name to the list of critics on April 15, telling the council that the Sego Canyon corridor proposal is “quite literally a dead end.”
The conservation group will not support any proposal that includes the corridor, while excluding lands in the Manti-La Sal National Forest from wilderness protections, she said. However, Butter said she’s confident that success is possible if the council makes adjustments to the committee’s third alternative, which includes the most protections for the county’s federal lands.
Information about each of the alternatives, as well as the upcoming public meeting, is available on the county’s website at: www.grandcountyutah.net/landuse.htm.