Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks to the press

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks to the press on February 23, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio.

(Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Buttigieg Urged to Block Federal Funding for 'Carbon Bomb' Railway Along Colorado River

"The project could result in as many as five, two-mile-long crude-oil trains running over 100 miles directly alongside the headwaters of the Colorado River each day," Colorado Democrats warned.

With the toxic train derailment in eastern Ohio still in the national spotlight, Democratic members of Colorado's congressional delegation are imploring U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to do everything he can to head off another potential railway disaster—one that could impact a river that supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans.

In a letter to Buttiegieg on Thursday, Sens. Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, and Rep. Joe Neguse warned the secretary against approving a key federal funding mechanism for the Uinta Basin Railway, a project that aims to connect eastern Utah's oil-rich Uinta Basin with the national rail system in order to massively expand fossil fuel production in the region.

"The additional risks posed by this project—including those raised by Colorado communities concerned by the potential for a train derailment along the headwaters of the Colorado River—give cause for caution in using taxpayer funds to support the project, and have gained new urgency in the wake of the East Palestine disaster," the lawmakers wrote.

"If successful, the project could result in as many as five, two-mile-long crude-oil trains running over 100 miles directly alongside the headwaters of the Colorado River each day. Many Colorado communities have raised concerns about the potential harm of railway accidents to water quality, wildlife, and wildfire risk," they continued. "However, our review of the project found no plan to mitigate the harm of a potential accident or derailment in Colorado, which could be particularly difficult to address given our state’s mountainous terrain."

The Colorado Democrats sent the letter a day after a CSX train derailed in West Virginia, dumping a yet-to-be-determined amount of diesel fuel into one of North America's oldest rivers. More than 1,000 trains derail each year in the U.S., where powerful rail giants have used their vast resources to fight off and weaken safety regulations.

In their letter, the lawmakers specifically urged Buttigieg to deny the Uinta Basin Railway project access to tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs). On Thursday, Utah's Seven County Infrastructure Coalition—part of the public-private alliance that controls the project—formally approved a request asking the Transportation Department to authorize up to $2 billion worth of PABs, without which the project may struggle to advance as its costs balloon.

The PABs could cover an estimated 70% of the project's expenses.

"The Department of Transportation has generally issued PABs for passenger rail and highway improvements: projects that provide a clear public transportation benefit," the Colorado Democrats noted in their letter. "There is no precedent for using PABs to fund a rail project solely to transport crude oil."

If Buttigieg ignores the warnings of lawmakers, local residents, and environmentalists and approves issuance of the bonds, the Democratic congressmen wrote, "this would not only constitute the largest PAB the DOT has ever issued; it would also irretrievably sink taxpayer dollars into a project that has proven unable to contain its own costs."

"The fact that we continue to have disasters like East Palestine and near misses over and over again is a regulatory failure that demonstrates the absolute power of railroad industry lobbying."

On top of the potential costs to taxpayers, climate advocates have been arguing for more than a year that the Uinta Basin Railway poses a major threat to U.S. efforts to combat the climate crisis. The Center for Biological Diversity has dubbed the project "one of the nation's biggest carbon bombs," noting that it could quadruple oil production in Utah's Uinta Basin.

"The railway will spur an increase of up to 350,000 barrels a day, amounting to up to 53 million tons of annual carbon pollution—as much or more than what’s produced by the nation’s three largest power plants," the group said last June. "Sending tens of millions of barrels of crude oil each year from Utah to the Houston area for refining would be equivalent to adding a new refinery to the region, which already exceeds national pollution standards."

The Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency, approved construction of the new rail line for the Uinta Basin project in December 2021. Months later, the U.S. Forest Service gave its approval, drawing legal action from a coalition of environmental organizations.

Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, toldThe Guardian on Thursday that "it will be a triumph of corporate greed" if the project is ultimately allowed to move forward.

"The fact that we continue to have disasters like East Palestine and near misses over and over again is a regulatory failure that demonstrates the absolute power of railroad industry lobbying," Boyles said.

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