Bill Love, left, laughed as balloon-toting, anti-oil sands activists briefly disrupted Parsons Brinckerhoff engineer Diego Carroll's presentation on a new study of a proposed transportation corridor through the Book Cliffs. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

If the Book Cliffs Highway is ever built, researchers say it could improve regional air quality by reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled on other, out-of-the-way roads.

But the authors of the latest transportation corridor study acknowledge that they did not consider the potential impacts that the project could have on global climate change by facilitating the development of fossil fuels in the region.

“While the (greenhouse gas) emissions increase caused by transportation would be minimal, the proposed improvements could encourage additional energy production and the potential increase from such activity is unknown,” the study from engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff says.

Questions about the study’s narrow focus on emissions came up repeatedly during a Feb. 11 presentation on the study at the Grand Center.

Parsons Brinckerhoff engineer Diego Carroll said the route would have positive benefits because it would act as a “relief valve” that steers traffic away from U.S. Highway 191 or Colorado State Highway 139, leading to a net reduction of 118,000 vehicle miles per day.

“Trips today that are using 191 would decide that it’s shorter or more direct to travel through this new corridor,” Carroll said. “The result is actually a reduction in overall traffic.”

The 108-page study found that while passenger traffic would drop and heavy truck traffic would actually increase, there would ultimately be a 3 percent reduction in the number of vehicle miles traveled.

“The greenhouse gas savings from this are based on the vehicle-miles travel reductions,” Carroll said. “So, because there are fewer emissions coming out of vehicles – fewer miles traveled – that’s the component that we used.”

Castle Valley resident Mary O’Brien questioned why the study’s authors didn’t use a clear economic model to consider the social costs of carbon emissions on the planet.

“I would think it would overwhelm any savings you had,” O’Brien said. “I mean, you’re going to have more vehicles and you’re going to generate an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Carroll acknowledged that project proponents still need to conduct a more-in-depth look at other variables, such as the potential impacts that fossil-fuel development in the Book Cliffs could have on climate change around the globe.

“I think that is a question that would definitely … need to be addressed or considered during the (National Environmental Policy Act) process,” he said.

The study estimates that it would cost about $157 million to build a 41-mile East Canyon route, or $158 million to route a 42-mile corridor through Hay Canyon. Both routes are located north of Interstate 70 near the Utah-Colorado state line.

Either route would generally follow existing alignments through the Book Cliffs, although crews would have to build a new spur to an Interstate 70 interchange near Cisco.

Carroll said that researchers made the “probably aggressive” assumption that the new road could be built within the next five years. But they did not identify which entities would be responsible for funding the project. Nor does their study outline any responsibilities for road maintenance costs, which would total an estimated $27 million to $28 million over a 20-year period.

Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley said that anyone in Grand County who moves to support local taxpayer funding for the project will ultimately face the consequences, come Election Day.

“The last time this happened with the Book Cliffs Highway, we threw the suckers out,” he told the Moab Sun News.

One man who did not identify himself interrupted Carroll’s presentation to say that project proponents should ultimately factor in the costs of continued local opposition to the proposed route. But county resident Lisa Knight Ceniceros countered that other people in the community support the project, and she said the man cannot presume to speak for them.

Funding for the study itself came from Duchesne and Uintah counties, along with their respective transportation districts and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA). The Grand County Transportation Special Service District also contributed $10,000.

A benefit cost analysis of the route found that it would have a net present value of $1.8 billion. Broken down by tourism, energy development and other economic drivers, the study says the route would have a total economic impact of $281 million through 2040, including a $65 million boost to Grand County.

Critics worry that taxpayers would be on the hook to pay for a project that would promote the development of conventional and unconventional fossil fuel development in the Book Cliffs. About 99.5 percent of current oil production in the Uintah Basin comes from conventional oil wells, although the study finds that unconventional oil sands and oil shale developers in the Book Cliffs – including Canadian company U.S. Oil Sands – could eventually enter the marketplace.

Shifting their focus, however, officials in Uintah County and elsewhere are increasingly touting the route as a “national parks highway.” They say it would increase access to and improve connectivity between Utah’s national parks and Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks in Wyoming, among other places.

By 2040, the study estimates that the route would bring 11,000 additional visitors per year to Arches National Park alone. Additional visitor traffic along the road would generate an extra $58 million in regional consumer spending, supporting 869 new jobs over a 25-year period, the study found.

But Moab resident Marc Thomas asked if anyone considered how ironic it would be if tourists used the controversial route to access national parks. He called it a public relations issue that the U.S. Department of the Interior would not be eager to embrace.

Others have questioned whether tourists would want to share the road with potentially heavy truck traffic from fossil-fuel projects in the area.

If the road is built, the study’s authors estimate that spending on oil and gas projects would increase by $95.1 million through 2040. The study projects that the combined total of incremental energy production would reach more than $128 million during that time.

However, the actual economic benefits of energy development are never easy to predict, given the volatility of that sector: Crude oil prices are currently hovering at or below $30 per barrel, compared to 2008-era highs of $147 per barrel.

“The prices of oil have gone down, even since the time that we actually put our study together,” Carroll said.

Because energy forecasting is a tricky business, the study forecasts what the price of oil per barrel might be in the future, with scenarios that span from the mid-range, to higher and lower forecasts.

“We assume in this study that energy extraction will happen,” Carroll said. “And the price of oil will determine at what rate that would happen, so if rates are lower – prices are lower today – then the model assumes that there would be lower production today, and then production would occur later on in the process, as the price increases.”

Study authors say additional work needed to predict climate-change impacts from energy development

To read the study, go to