The Union Pacific railroad along the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon is pictured on Sept. 2, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The Biden administration is set to approve another key permit for a new railroad in Utah that is expected to drastically increase the amount of crude oil hauled through Colorado by rail, dismissing objections from environmental groups and Colorado communities along the impacted route.
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday rejected a challenge to its decision to allow part of the proposed 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway to cross a protected roadless area in the Ashley National Forest. Securing the right-of-way is a critical step for the project, which is backed by a public-private partnership between seven Utah county governments, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific railroad company.
Utah’s oil and gas industry has eagerly supported the proposed rail line, which is projected to significantly increase oil production in the Uinta Basin by connecting the region to the national rail network, allowing crude oil to be transported over the Rocky Mountains to refineries along the Gulf Coast. An environmental impact statement prepared by federal regulators estimated that the increased production from the Uinta Basin alone could increase total annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1%, at a time when scientists are urging drastic global emissions cuts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
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“President Biden should be doing everything in his power to respond to the climate emergency, but he’s about to light one of the nation’s biggest carbon bombs,” Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “This is pouring another 5 billion gallons of oil on the fire every year and bulldozing a national forest in the process. It’s a horrifying step in the wrong direction.”
Much of the additional crude oil produced as a result of the Uinta Basin Railway would be hauled through Colorado on a route that passes through Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River, then through the Moffat Tunnel and central Denver. Up to 10 two-mile-long trains would travel the route daily, and because the Uinta Basin produces a type of oil known as “waxy” crude, the tank cars used to transport it need to be heated, creating additional safety and environmental risks.
Dozens of cities, counties and water districts along the route have voiced opposition to the project, including Glenwood Springs, where city officials worry about potential impacts to the Colorado River Basin, and Eagle County, which has joined environmental groups in suing the U.S. Surface Transportation Board in a federal appeals court over its 4-1 vote to approve the project as a whole in December.
This is pouring another 5 billion gallons of oil on the fire every year and bulldozing a national forest in the process. It’s a horrifying step in the wrong direction.
– Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity
At least 21 oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since 2013, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Sightline Institute. Such incidents frequently result in fires and spills, including the 2016 derailment of an oil train in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, in which an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled.
The partnership behind the railway project says it’s “committed to minimizing and mitigating environmental impacts where possible,” and will comply with “all federal, state, and local environmental regulations.”
In a notice sent on Tuesday, Forest Service officials rejected the Center for Biological Diversity’s challenge to the Ashley National Forest right-of-way permit, writing that despite some “concerns” about the environmental impact statement prepared by the Surface Transportation Board, the agency believes the analysis “supports permit issuance.”
“There is nothing in the proposal that would suggest that the Forest Service must reject the proposal or deny the application,” wrote Deb Oakeson, deputy regional forester for the USFS Intermountain Region. “Analysis in the (environmental impact statement) has led to certain protective measures and mitigations that would be stipulated conditions of any potential special use permit.”
Backers say the $1.5 billion Uinta Basin Railway would be the largest new railroad project in the United States in nearly 50 years. Construction could begin as early as next year.
Opponents, however, still hope to prevail in several legal challenges, including Eagle County’s suit against the Surface Transportation Board and a separate complaint alleging misuse of state funds in connection with the project’s financing. Eagle County and other petitioners in the federal lawsuit are scheduled to file opening briefs in the case by Aug. 4.
In a letter sent earlier this year, more than 50 Colorado city and county governments urged Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper to speak out in opposition to the project. Both senators have said that they share Colorado communities’ “concerns” about the proposal.
Meanwhile, more than 100 environmental groups from Colorado, Utah and other Western states have voiced their opposition, objecting to the railway’s potential to do “tremendous harm to the environment.”
“This area is already facing water and air quality issues,” Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said in a statement Wednesday. “The railway will quadruple production of oil in the Uinta Basin, resulting in dire consequences for air quality, public lands, water, public safety and the climate.”
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