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Firefighters respond after a train carrying crude oil derailed on December 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington.

Firefighters respond after a train carrying crude oil derailed on December 22, 2020 in Custer, Washington. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

'Climate Denial': Forest Service Sued for Approving Crude Oil Railway in Utah

"The planet is roasting in record heat, forest fires are raging, the Great Salt Lake is drying up, and yet the Forest Service is willing to make all these problems worse by paving the way for more oil production," said one climate campaigner.

Kenny Stancil

A coalition of environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday for approving the construction of an oil railway through a protected roadless area of the Ashley National Forest in Utah, arguing that the decision unlawfully fails to consider how more planet-heating emissions would further harm Earth's climate and how bulldozers would damage local ecosystems.

"Forest Service just dismissed this staggering amount of new oil production as insignificant... That's climate denial."

At issue is the Uinta Basin Railway, which is expected to nearly quintuple oil extraction in northeast Utah's Uinta Basin by linking its vast fracking operations to a transcontinental railroad network that would move hundreds of heated tank cars loaded with 350,000 barrels of waxy crude through the Colorado Rockies en route to Gulf Coast refineries each day.

If completed, the railway would provide enough transportation capacity to increase oil production in the basin by an estimated 14.7 million gallons a day, generating up to 53 million tons of carbon pollution per year. That's as much as the nation's three largest power plants, explained the petitioners—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Living Rivers.

"President [Joe] Biden has acknowledged we're in a climate emergency, but his Forest Service just dismissed this staggering amount of new oil production as insignificant," Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "That's climate denial, it ignores the best available science, and it has to be challenged in court."

Thursday's lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, accuses the Forest Service of violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to adequately account for the life-threatening consequences of spewing tens of millions of additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

In July, when the Forest Service dismissed an objection to the Uinta Basin Railway filed by the petitioners late last year, the agency acknowledged that the project would increase nationwide greenhouse gas pollution by 0.8%.

Even though scientists have warned repeatedly that global emissions must be halved by 2030 to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis, the Forest Service asserted that building an 88-mile railway to transport fossil fuels is in the public interest.

Because part of the proposed railway would cross the Ashley National Forest, the agency had a chance to stop the project in its tracks. Instead, it issued a special use permit for the roughly 12 miles of rail line that would dice up public lands protected by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, ordering park officials to issue a right-of-way that would enable construction to begin next year.

"The planet is roasting in record heat, forest fires are raging, the Great Salt Lake is drying up," Seed noted Thursday, "and yet the Forest Service is willing to make all these problems worse by paving the way for more oil production."

Utah Sierra Club director Carly Ferro called it "disappointing to see continued inaction on climate perpetuated by the very agencies with mandates to care for land and serve people."

Given that the oil trains exacerbate the risk of fires and spills, including along the beleaguered Colorado River that provides drinking water for 40 million people, Ferro said that "allowing this project to move forward lacks common sense and will leave communities vulnerable to dire consequences."

"The way we manage lands can help us foster healthy communities, increase access to the outdoors for all, protect critical habitat, and stabilize the climate—or it can put us on track for climate catastrophe," she added. "This decision steers us in the wrong direction."

Thursday's lawsuit also accuses the Forest Service of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect rare plants that 88 miles of rail line are poised to destroy.

"Is there nothing left that the oil and gas industry can't mangle and destroy?"

The federal government's own environmental analysis shows that the Uinta Basin Railway would irreparably damage biodiversity by digging up Utah streams in more than 400 locations and stripping bare 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including areas crucial to the survival of pronghorn, mule deer, and greater sage grouse.

The Forest Service's decision to rubber-stamp the project flies in the face of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's June directive calling on the agency to "take bold actions" to "address the climate crisis."

"Secretary Vilsack was right to call for bold climate action, but then he completely disregarded the urgent need to address the climate crisis and to protect this beautiful forest," said Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "Once again the public's health and the environment take a back seat to business as usual for the oil and gas industry."

More than 100 progressive advocacy groups representing millions of people have urged Vilsack to exercise his authority to halt the project by blocking the proposed right-of-way through Ashley National Forest, an unsuccessful effort so far.

Thursday's lawsuit is the second filed by the coalition challenging the Uinta Basin Railway.

In February, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and Living Rivers sued the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) following its mid-December approval of the project. They also sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for providing a "flawed biological opinion" on which the board relied.

As they did in their new suit against the Forest Service, the groups argued that the two agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, respectively, by failing to fully consider the project's likely impacts on the climate and rare flora.

Dozens of counties and local governments in Colorado have also voiced opposition to the oil railway, with several asking U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) to do everything in their power to prevent it from being built.

Eagle County, however, is so far the first and only one to join the four environmental groups in appealing the STB's approval of the project, a move local officials made earlier this month.

In a Colorado Sun opinion piece published just three days before the STB greenlighted the project late last year, Seed wrote that "there is no such thing as a safe oil train."

If the railway is built, she noted, "all routes lead through Colorado." Each day, up to 10 two-mile-long trains hauling crude oil would traverse mountains, valleys, and towns along the Western Slope and cut through cities in the Front Range.

The oil trains would travel "along the Union Pacific mainline, paralleling the Colorado River almost to its headwaters," Seed pointed out. "The trains will follow the Fraser River to Denver, where they'll head south through Colorado Springs and Pueblo toward refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. This will pose a tremendous health and safety threat to Coloradans and the state's remarkable wildlife and wild places."

John Weisheit of Living Rivers and Colorado Riverkeeper summarized the situation on Thursday, saying that "the Uinta Basin has been turned into a wasteland and now they want to develop a protected national forest roadless area."

"Is there nothing left that the oil and gas industry can't mangle and destroy?" he asked. "The Forest Service is abdicating its responsibility to safeguard our wild places, but we're hopeful the court will force them to do so."


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