Utah’s new oil rail line along the river poses a health and climate risk, activists say

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Developers are seeking billions of dollars in tax breaks for a new Utah oil railroad that will threaten the Colorado River and pose a risk to the health and safety of millions of Americans while damaging Joe Biden’s climate credentials, campaigners say.

The proposed 90-mile Uinta Railway is expected to quadruple crude oil production in the Uinta Basin by connecting it to the national rail network and coastal refineries.

According to plans shared with federal agencies, up to five two-mile oil trains a day would travel more than 100 miles directly along the Colorado River — a vital source of drinking water for 40 million Americans, 30 tribal nations and millions of acres of farmland. A derailment could be catastrophic for the river, which is already in crisis due to the region’s massive drought, rising temperatures and less snow on the Rocky Mountains, campaigners warn.

The railway could yield an additional 350,000 barrels of oil per day, campaigners estimate, exacerbating poor air quality in communities in Utah, Colorado and the Gulf Coast, while millions of tons of planet-warming greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere each year.

Federal agencies have issued major permits or indicated willingness to issue major permits despite the president’s goals to halve global warming emissions by 2030, address environmental inequalities and transition on clean energy.

The railway company says environmentalists exaggerate the climate footprint, the risk of derailment and ecological damage. It recently emerged that the developers are seeking permission from the Department of Transportation (DoT) to issue up to $2 billion in tax-exempt bonds to build and operate the oil train, through a program that has primarily helped accelerate public transportation rail and road projects. advantages.

“If this continues, it will be a triumph of corporate greed,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental legal group. “The fact that we keep having disasters like Eastern Palestine and near misses is a regulatory flaw that demonstrates the absolute power of the rail industry lobby.”

In the US, more than a thousand trains derail every year and the number of derailed cars carrying hazardous material is increasing. Over the past decade, the railroad industry has spent about $280 million lobbying Washington and more than $50 million on campaign contributions, according to political finance trackers Open Secrets.

The Uinta Basin in eastern Utah contains large oil and gas reserves, but extraction, which is done through fracking and conventional drilling, is limited by poor transportation links. The Republican-controlled legislature, the governor of Utah and local officials support building taxpayer-subsidized transportation links to boost production, arguing that it would benefit the state’s economy.

One option is flattening part of the nine-mile canyon, known as the largest prehistoric art gallery, to build a road suitable for a steady stream of heavy oil tankers; the other is the 88-mile railway line.


The Uinta Basin Railway Company is a public-private partnership between the asset management company DHIP Group, formerly known as Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, the Rio Grande Pacific rail company, and the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. The seven county commissioners tentatively passed a resolution last month seeking authorization to issue up to $2 billion in tax-exempt bonds.

The DoT was directed by Congress to issue up to $30 billion in tax-exempt private activity bonds through the Build America Bureau, which have so far been primarily earmarked for financing public utility highways, bridges and transit projects. The seven-county coalition is expected to formally endorse its support for the bonds at a public meeting on Thursday. The final decision is up to Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation.

The DoT did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, opposition from elected officials in Colorado has been mounting since the catastrophic derailment in eastern Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3.

“The governor continues to share some of the concerns that our communities and the Colorado recreation and tourism industry have raised with the proposal,” said a spokesman for Democratic governor Jared Polis.

“Derailments are seen as a cost of doing business, but we have seen the future in eastern Palestine and for us this would be like killing the golden goose,” said Jonathan Godes, mayor of Glenwood Springs, a picturesque mountain town in the US. popular Eagle province. with tourists. “This rail line won’t affect what we pay at the pump, but could contribute 1% to the country’s climate emissions, which I just can’t reconcile with Biden’s climate goals.”

A coalition of environmental groups and Colorado’s Eagle County filed lawsuits with the DC circuit, arguing that the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) permit—the cornerstone requirement for freight rail projects—was granted without an adequate assessment of environmental impacts.

“Eastern Palestine stressed that any train incident could be catastrophic and the risks have not been adequately assessed,” said Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr. “These limited bonds are meant to be used for the public good, how could such a climate impact ever be appropriate.”

There is also a separate lawsuit pending against a preliminary Forest Service decision authorizing a stretch to be constructed through a 12-mile unimproved area of ​​the Ashley National Forest. On Monday, Sen. Michael Bennett and Congressman Joe Negusse of Colorado wrote to Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary in charge of the Forest Service, calling for the ruling on the roadless exception to be held over until a proper environmental review is conducted.

Contrary to information provided to the STB, Uinta Basin Railway president Mark Michel said many of the trains would pass through Northern Utah and Wyoming, not Colorado, and that the crude oil would be used for lubricants , base oils, cosmetics and plastics are not fuel.

In a statement, Michel added: “The waxy crude oil is being transported as a solid and thus not as a flammable or hazardous liquid which would pose an environmental problem or concern to the ecological system if a derailment were to occur…consider this a major candle transported in a tank.

“In the unlikely event of a derailment, cleanup crews simply picked up a ‘bunch of candles’ with shovels. That opponents claim that this would be an environmental catastrophe shows a lack of understanding of the physical properties of the oil and how it is transported. Plus, the Colorado route that Eagle County and other communities seem so concerned about has been around for a century. More dangerous things are being carried on that line than this Uinta crude oil.

Deeda Seed, the Utah Public Lands senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is campaigning to stop the railroad, said, “The science shows that even if the waxy crude doesn’t burn after a spill, the mess will be hard to clean up … This is a project with dire consequences that benefits only a few private companies, it is completely against the public interest.”

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