Jan 27, 2022
Warning of "tremendous" environmental harm, more planet-heating pollution, and the undermining of White House climate goals, over 100 advocacy groups on Wednesday urged President Joe Biden's agriculture secretary to take action to block a proposed oil rail line in eastern Utah.
"Increased drilling and extraction the railway seeks to induce will boost greenhouse pollution at every step in the process."
The demand came in a letter to Secretary Tom Vilsack and centers on the 85-mile Uinta Basin Railway, which was approved by a federal agency, the Surface Transportation Board, last month. In November, the U.S. Forest Service, an Agriculture Department agency, issued a draft approval for a right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest; a 12-mile stretch of the railway would pass through the forest, including in a roadless area.
The groups are asking Vilsack to stop the Forest Service's plan to approve a right-of-way.
"The administration can halt this filthy oil train in its tracks and demonstrate its commitment curbing climate change," said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
As The Colorado Sun reported earlier this month:
The Utah railroad would connect to the national rail network, allowing trains to transport "waxy crude" to Gulf Coast refineries from the Uinta Basin in northern Utah. The railroad will increase oil production in the Uinta Basin, which has been limited by the fact the viscous crude is too thick to move through a pipeline.
In their letter, the groups push back against an assertion from Forest Service chief Randy Moore that the project is in line with Biden's executive order from last year calling for a "government-wide approach that reduces climate pollution in every sector of the economy" and for permitting decisions to include climate impacts.
Contrary to that executive order, "the intended purpose and stated goal of the railway is to increase fossil fuel extraction on public lands in the Uinta Basin," the groups wrote, pointing to a potential quadrupling of fossil fuel extraction in the basin from 80,000 barrels per day to 350,000 barrels per day.
"Increased drilling and extraction the railway seeks to induce will boost greenhouse pollution at every step in the process: from extraction, to transportation, to refining, to combustion. The infrastructure investment solely enabled by the issuance of this discretionary right-of-way thus contradicts the president's stated climate policy."
The railway additionally threatens "irreversible environmental damage," they wrote.
That potential wreckage includes 400 affected Utah streams. The railway also stands to "strip bare or build on 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat," and in a sagebrush valley, "bulldozers and train traffic would drive imperiled greater sage grouse out of their mating and nesting grounds and, it is feared, wipe them out from the region."
"Virtually the entirety of the railway on the Ashley National Forest, totaling 12 miles, would be built in an inventoried roadless area protected by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule," the groups wrote, "and according to the Forest Service, degrade roadless area values by building five bridges and blasting three tunnels up to 2,100 feet wide."
Citing federal documents, the letter says that as many as 1,809 oil trains, each with roughly 642 barrels of crude oil, would leave the Uinta Basin per year, each one carrying risks of oil spills as they head to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where communities are already suffering from environmental injustice. And the fossil fuel project would come "at a time when Western states are reeling from drought, wildfires, and pollution caused by the climate emergency."
"The harm from this proposed railway will exacerbate the climate emergency, increase the risk of wildfires and oil spills, put pressure on our already strained rail system, and increase pollution while undermining President Biden's goals to address the climate crisis," the letter states.
Spivak, in her statement, framed the railway as clearly undermining the president's climate goals.
"The Unita Basin Railway runs counter to everything Biden says he stands for," she said. "It's a climate-killing fossil fuel behemoth that will endanger Utahns and Coloradoans and worsen the climate emergency. It needs to be stopped now."
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