The oil boom in Utah’s Dinosaur Country could push a highway through one of last pieces of wilderness in the state.
The idea of paving a road through the Book Cliffs for the oil industry was rejected once 20 years ago. But it’s back on the table thanks to a booming Uintah County energy business and a little help from the Utah Legislature.
Money slipped last month into the new state budget should be enough to get the road project back on the drawing table, said Uintah County Commissioner Dave Haslem. He believes paving the existing Seep Ridge Road through the Book Cliffs is necessary if companies hoping to develop the area’s natural gas, tar sands and oil shale are to make a profit.
“We had one oil tar sand company tell us they plan on 150 trailers per day on the road by the end of summer,” Haslem says. “I don’t know what to believe, but you have to plan for something.”
Already, heavy equipment using the existing gravel Seep Ridge Road is terrifying road crews by careening on two wheels down the back of the Book Cliffs said Bob Greenberg, a councilman from neighboring Grand County.
The Utah Legislature began its 2008 session hoping to fund many new roads out of a large budget surplus. But when that surplus dried up, so did funding for most road projects. The final budget included little cash for new roads. Seep Ridge Road was one of the few exceptions.
Sen. Kevin VanTassell, R-Vernal, who represents much of northeast Utah, got a $2 million appropriation for Seep Ridge Road via his seat on an appropriations committee. The money will be added to about $2 million put up by Uintah County and a $1 million pledge from industry to make up the estimated cost of preparing an environmental-impact statement and preliminary engineering drawings for an improved road.
Also in this year’s budget, the Legislature included general instructions asking counties to fix up roads used by oil and gas companies. Counties in Utah’s mineral rich areas receive annual infusions of cash from companies that lease state land. The payments can be used for transportation, health care, recreation and street lighting. But in the new budget, the Legislature wrote it wanted the money used on oil roads, when oil companies were willing to share the cost.
The Uintah County Commission hopes to start right away. An improved Seep Ridge Road would run from Vernal south to Interstate-70 where oil and gas could continue by freeway or connect with rail. That means a generation-old fight is likely to start all over again.
The Book Cliffs are among the most inaccessible places in Utah, if not the entire lower 48 states. That, of course, is why wilderness advocates don’t want a highway running through them.
The area is home to Utah’s largest wildlife populations. Plants near Seep Ridge Road were recently proposed for threatened status. A coalition of environmental groups has asked Congress to give portions of the Book Cliffs federal wilderness designation.
Bill Hedden, a former Grand County councilman who now directs the Grand Canyon Trust, calls the re-emergence of the Book Cliffs highway “proof that no truly terrible idea ever goes away.”
The highway nearly became a reality in the late-1980s. The Uintah and Grand county commissions had nearly completed environmental studies required to start road graders when a rebellion stopped the road in its tracks.
Opponents of the project from Grand County were so upset about their county commissioners going along with the road that, in 1992, they petitioned to change the county’s form of government. County commissioners who supported the road were thrown out in favor of a new county council, including Hedden. The new council moved money earmarked for the road to a hospital that otherwise would have closed.
Hedden says the argument over the Book Cliffs highway is larger even than the oil companies. Seep Ridge Road was once recommended for paving by a state tourism board as a “scenic road” for tourists to move between red-rock country and Yellowstone. But in reality, it’s always been about stopping wilderness, he says.
For some “sagebrush rebellion” politicians, the chief benefit of the highway is making it difficult to declare the Book Cliffs federal wilderness. But the idea has other problems, Hedden says. The project would have eaten up all county mineral lease money in the 1980s. It would be at least as expensive today and literally built on shifting sands. “It’s the worst of the gumbo in this part of the world,” Hedden says.
But Uintah County politicians say they have no choice but to make some concession to industrial development. The proposed oil road would be a shortcut from the route now used by most oil trucks leaving the Book Cliffs—north to Highway 40, then on that two-lane road to Interstate-80, past Park City to refineries in Salt Lake City. Uintah County Commissioner Haslem says commissioners are getting pressure from Wasatch County politicians who don’t like the heavy trucks on their highways.
Grand County’s Greenberg says there is no doubt that impacts from the oil industry need to be addressed. “You can’t spit without hitting a drill rig or a compressor station,” he says.
Still, the oil boom in northeast Utah won’t last forever, Greenberg adds. “It’s a 20- 30-year bubble,” he says. “You have to be careful not to sell our birthright for short-term gain.”