Houston — The US government Feb. 12 will close the comment period for the environmental impact statement on the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, a project aiming to link producers of the Utah basin's waxy crude with more lucrative markets outside the immediate area – potentially in the US Gulf Coast and West Coast.
The $1.5 billion project, unveiled in 2019 and sponsored by a quasi-government group called the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition in Utah, aims to build and operate the railway that would link to existing major rail loading facilities further west near Kyune in Utah County and south of Salt Lake City. The 85-mile line runs from two Uinta Basin receipt points, one in Uinta County, the other in Duchesne County.
From there, the interstate common carrier rail network would allow shippers an alternative to trucking, which currently is the only transportation option out of the basin.
Because of that limitation, most of the basin's crude output is refined at five Salt Lake City area refineries. But analysts and Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) partners believe if Uinta oil could more efficiently get to the US Gulf Coast or West Coast, it would command a better price and potentially even encourage more production from the basin. The partners include railroad operator Rio Grande Pacific, New York investment bank Drexel Hamilton and the Ute Indian tribe.
And, a rail line would likely be cheaper than trucking from eastern Utah to Salt Lake City, Parker Fawcett, an analyst with S&P Global Platts Analytics, said.
"Uinta production has long been declining as it is a high operating cost, low-producing basin," Fawcett said. "The basin is a mature, conventional play, and is...the least economic of the plays across the US."
"The crude is discounted significantly and the differential is thus set to the cost of transport from the basin to Salt Lake City, minus a quality discount" that is roughly $10/b discounted to WTI, he said. "It adds a bit of cost (like $1/b-$2/b), but I would think it's still more economical to ship to the US Gulf Coast or across the Rockies than it is to truck via heated truck to Salt Lake City."
Even prior to the shale revolution, the Uinta Basin was touted to have high resource potential. As far back as 2011, Newfield Exploration, an enthusiastic Uinta operator at the time which has since been acquired by Ovintiv, put its own Uinta acreage resource estimate at 700 million barrels net of resource potential.
However, Michael Vanden Berg, energy and minerals program manager at the Utah Geological Survey, estimated the Uinta resource potential runs in the "billions, like one, two or three." A new estimate to replace an earlier 214 million barrel estimate by the US Geological Survey is planned for this year, jointly with UGS, and is due out later this year, Vanden Berg said.
Horizontal drilling, widely used in US unconventional plays, is just getting started in the basin. But recent wells have been successful, Vanden Berg said, with initial production rates of between 1,000 b/d to 2,000 b/d apiece.
More producers might be drawn to the basin with more favorable economics, Pamela Juliano, director of government affairs for railroad operator Rio Grande Pacific, said.
"We're already hearing that producers want to ramp up the operation because the product is so highly sought after," she said.
As oil prices have fallen in recent years, producers have opted to focus on areas where more cost-effective transport options exist and horizontal drilling is at a more advanced stage such as the Permian Basin of West Texas/New Mexico and the Bakken Shale mainly in North Dakota.
Consequently, Uinta output has fallen in recent years. From 90,000 b/d in 2019, production is currently around 65,000 b/d and in the next few years is projected to drop further – to around 45,000 b/d in 2024, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics figures. Most of its output goes to five Salt Lake City-area refineries.
However, Mark Hemphill, senior vice president of railroad operator Rio Grande Pacific Corporation and project manager of the Uinta Basin Railway project, said the rail line's take-or-pay commitment required to commercialize it is 130,000 b/d, over and above shipments already committed to local refineries. And the project's environment impact statement estimates that production hauled by rail could increase to 350,000 b/d, Hemphill, whose Utah-based consultants put the resource potential at more than 4 billion barrels at 12% technical recovery, said.
Currently basin producers reportedly ship about 12,000 b/d to US Gulf Coast refiners by rail, trucking oil from the basin and then loading it to major rail lines south of Salt Lake City. The most notable Uinta producers are EP Energy and Ovintiv that produce from 10,000-20,000 b/d per well. But there also are a number of smaller operators in the basin.
Besides the Uinta's mountainous terrain, the basin's crude has another unique feature: it's waxy. It comes out of the ground at around 150 degrees, but soon hardens at ambient temperatures into what some have called a shoe polish or candle-like consistency.
Thus, the transportation solution needs to keep the oil heated and liquid – a condition that has ruled out a pipeline solution, which was tried years ago but eventually had issues with keeping crude heated. Blending Uinta crude with other oils ran into the same problem.
And since in the Uinta, a pipeline would have to not only run dozens of miles over steep mountain ranges, both local officials and previous private entities that looked at pipeline feasibility decided rail was the best solution, Hemphill said.
Heated tank cars
For UBR's project, rail tank cars will heat up the crude.
"The tank cars that will ship this oil are exactly the same that's used for bitumen out of Canada or any other oil with a high pour point," Hemphill said. "When [the tank cars] arrive at destination, steam piping is hooked to coils in the cars and...melts the oil which flows quite nicely out of the tank car by gravity."
The oil can then be run directly into a catalytic cracker and yields volumetric expansion at US refineries. "Generally one barrel of Uinta oil put into a CC will give 1.14%-1.2% volumetric increase," Hemphill said. "So it has very attractive economics for an FCC."
Because Uinta Basin oil is in demand both as a crude oil unit bypass to FCCs or refineries' fluid catalytic crackers and also as a base oil, it commands a premium over WTI of anywhere between $2/b to $8/b, he said.
"We reran the numbers on our model last summer using $44/b WTI with that built-in premium, and the netbacks were very attractive to producers," he added. "We have not found a refiner yet who does not want this crude on the US Gulf Coast."
The basin's API 40-42 degree light crude contains almost no sulfur or metals and analysts say it is desirable to refiners.
"Once on the Gulf Coast, [Uinta oil] could compete with the variety of crudes that are available," industry consultant Andy Lipow said. "I think at one time people may have been thinking this is a good [oil] perhaps for IMO 2020 compliance because it's very low sulfur."
If all goes as planned, the operating license and federal permits should be in hand later in the year, with up to 18 months to design and procure the project. Construction would then start in 2023, with rail deliveries beginning in early 2025.