While most of us have been distracted by news of bank failures, atmospheric rivers, March Madness and “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” a bunch of slippery greedheads in Utah have been quietly pursuing a plan to rip off taxpayers, endanger the Colorado River and wreck the planet.

The Uinta Basin Railway project, for decades just a gleam in the watery eyes of oil drillers and bond sellers in northeast Utah, is slithering menacingly toward reality. 

And what a dystopian reality that is.

The railway would move up to 350,000 barrels of waxy crude oil per day in heated tankers through a sensitive roadless area of the Ashley National Forest in Utah, across Colorado’s West Slope on tracks clinging to the banks of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs and Gore Canyon, through the Moffat Tunnel to the Front Range and on to be refined in Cancer Alley on the Gulf Coast.

Oh, and the cost for this deranged project has doubled in the past 18 months from an estimated $1.35 billion to as much as $2.9 billion. 

Proving just how cheeky they are, the proponents have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for $2 billion in tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds — usually reserved for repairing failing bridges, widening highways or supporting transit projects — to subsidize the oil industry. The bonds would constitute an $80 million per year taxpayer-funded boost to their bottom line.

The list of reasons for denying approval is long.

First, as Ted Zukoski, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, has said, the project is a “huge carbon bomb” that would pump emissions from the burning of an additional 5 billion gallons of crude oil a year into the atmosphere at a time when the country’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030.

The railway would dramatically increase oil drilling in the Uinta Basin, which is considered among the worst in the nation in terms of reckless methane leaks and flagrant air pollution releases. The toxic air produced by the drillers is then exported to Colorado where it creates unhealthy conditions, elevated ozone levels and temperature inversions along the Front Range.

The railway would endanger the fragile Colorado River and water supplies across the state by putting hazardous materials in two-mile-long trains running along 100 miles of tracks through a wildfire-ravaged landscape so close to the river that a paddleboarder floating in the current could easily toss a rock and hit the side of a passing train. 


These trains would run as many as five times a day, through blizzards, mudslides and rockfalls, all but guaranteeing periodic derailments and hazardous spills that, given the nature of the viscous crude, are extremely difficult to clean up.

Then, when the flood of waxy crude arrives at the Gulf Coast, refining it will dramatically increase pollution levels in an area where rates of cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease already are twice the national average.

Despite all this, last summer the U.S. Forest Service greenlighted the railway’s plan to blast tunnels and carve roads through the Ashley National Forest.

Now, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is considering the request for Private Activity Bonds, and environmental groups, communities along the proposed rail routes and public officials are mobilizing to derail the project.

“We hope he will look at this proposal with a jaded eye,” Zukoski said. After all, “railroads have pretty diminished political capital at this time.”

No joke.

The disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, the resulting attention to derailments nationwide and the history of industry lobbying to thwart safety regulation have raised fears of any expansion of hazardous material shipments by rail, much less taxpayer subsidies for them. 

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In a recent letter to Buttigieg, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse cited the failure of the railway proponents even to offer a plan for mitigating future disasters and all-too-politely asked the Transportation Secretary to “seriously consider the risks of providing federal cost assistance” to the project.

Bennet and Neguse also wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling for a “supplemental review” of the railway project.

“A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the river would be catastrophic not only to our state’s water supplies, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation assets, but also to the broader river basin. … It is beyond reckless to expose these sensitive areas of our state to these additional risks,” the letter said.

Further, the blowback from Biden’s decision last week to allow oil drilling on federal lands in Alaska under the Willow project could give the administration some incentive to take action toward its much-vaunted climate goals and reject the Uinta Basin Railway project.

The Uinta Basin Railway project is a bad investment. It’s bad for the planet, bad for the country and worse for the people of Colorado.

“This has been a taxpayer boondoggle from the get-go,” Zukoski said.

It’s not too late to stop it.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

Diane Carman

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @dccarman