oil rig in Utah

An oil rig is shown in Vernal, Utah—in the Uinta Basin—on October 14, 2014.

(Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

US Appeals Court Halts 'Climate Bomb' Oil Rail Project Over Environmental Concerns

"This is an enormous victory for our shared climate, the Colorado River and the communities that rely on it for clean water, abundant fish and recreation," said one campaigner.

U.S. Green groups and some Democratic politicians on Friday celebrated a federal appellate court's ruling that pauses the development of the Uinta Basin Railway, a project that would connect Utah's oil fields to the national railway network.

"The court's rejection of this oil railway and its ensuing environmental damage is a victory for the climate, public health, and wild landscapes," said WildEarth Guardians legal director Samantha Ruscavage-Barz. "The public shouldn't have to shoulder the costs of the railway's environmental degradation while the fossil fuel industry reaps unprecedented profits from dirty energy."

Although the ruling does not necessarily permanently block the project—which would cut through tribal land and a national forest—Carly Ferro, executive director of the Utah Sierra Club, similarly called the decision "a win for communities across the West and is critical for ensuring a sustainable climate future."

"From its onset, this project's process has been reckless and egregious. But today, the people and the planet prevailed," Ferro added. "We will continue to advocate for accountable processes to ensure a healthy environment where communities can live safely, and this win will help make that possible."

A coalition of advocacy groups and Eagle County, Colorado launched legal challenges to the project last year. Ruling on the consolidated case Friday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the Surface Transportation Board's (STB) December 2021 approval of the railway, along with the federal agency's related environmental impact statement (EIS) as well as a biological opinion (BiOp) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The panel found "numerous" violations of the National Environmental Policy Act "arising from the EIS, including the failures to: (1) quantify reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation and special-status species of increased drilling in the Uinta Basin and increased oil train traffic along the Union Pacific Line, as well as the effects of oil refining on environmental justice communities the Gulf Coast; (2) take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline; and (3) explain the lack of available information on local accident risk" in accordance with federal law, wrote Judge Robert Wilkins. "The EIS is further called into question since the BiOp failed to assess impacts on the Colorado River fishes downline."

As the The Colorado Sunreported Friday:

The Surface Transportation Board argued it did not have jurisdiction to address or enforce mitigation of impacts outside the 88-mile rail corridor.

The appeals court ordered the Surface Transportation Board to redo its environmental review of the project. But the court did not agree with Eagle County and the environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity that the Uinta Basin Railway could lead to the opening of the long-dormant Tennessee Pass Line between Dotsero and Cañon City.

The court also did not wholly agree that the transportation board failed to adequately consider the climate impacts of burning the new crude, which could increase pollution and account for 1% of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the Center for Biological Diversity celebrated the decision, with senior campaigner Deeda Seed saying that "this is an enormous victory for our shared climate, the Colorado River, and the communities that rely on it for clean water, abundant fish, and recreation."

"The Uinta Basin Railway is a dangerous, polluting boondoggle that threatens people, wildlife, and our hope for a livable planet," Seed added. "The Biden administration needs to dismantle this climate bomb and throw it in the trash can where it belongs."

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse, both Colorado Democrats, also welcomed the ruling in a joint statement.

"This ruling is excellent news," the pair said. "The approval process for the Uinta Basin Railway Project has been gravely insufficient, and did not properly account for the project's full risks to Colorado's communities, water, and environment. A new review must account for all harmful effects of this project on our state, including potential oil spills along the Colorado River and increased wildfire risk."

"An oil train derailment in the headwaters of the Colorado River would be catastrophic—not only to Colorado, but the 40 million Americans who rely on it," they added. "We're grateful for the leadership of Eagle County and the many organizations and local officials around Colorado who made their voices heard."

Speaking to Real Vail on Friday, Eagle County attorney Bryan Treu pointed to a Norfolk Southern that was carrying hazardous material when it derailed and burned in East Palestine, Ohio in February—an incident that has since fueled calls across the country for boosting rail safety rules and blocking projects like the Uinta Basin Railway.

"It seems like we read every month this last year about a derailment somewhere," said Treu. "So there's a lot to look at that. The circumstances have changed, and as this goes back to the Surface Transportation Board, they're going to be looking at all those things."

Reutersreported that while the STB declined to comment, "a spokesperson for the project—a public-private partnership that includes the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, investor DHIP Group, and rail operator Rio Grande Pacific Corp—said developers are 'ready, willing, and capable of working' with regulators during additional reviews."

Meanwhile, some locals hope Friday's ruling is a step toward killing the project. Jonny Vasic, executive director for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said that "the people of Utah can breathe a sigh of relief. Hopefully this is the beginning of the end for the Uinta Basin Railway."

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