Colorado’s U.S. Sen Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse have fired off a letter to a fourth federal agency asking leaders to reject a plan to ship Uinta Basin crude oil by rail from Utah through Colorado.
The two Democrats on Tuesday asked the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit the agency’s review of a Surface Transportation Board analysis of a new railroad connecting Utah’s Uinta Basin oil fields with the national rail network.
Bennet and Neguse this year have asked the Forest Service to overturn its approval to build a short stretch of the Uinta Basin Railway through public forest. They also asked the head of the federal Department of Transportation to deny approval of $2 billion in private activity bonds to build the estimated $3 billion railroad. Last year the two lawmakers asked the head of President Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality to review the Surface Transportation Board’s 2021 approval of the railroad.
The Uinta Basin Railway has been in the works for several years, as seven counties in central Utah negotiated a plan to build 88 miles of new railroad to ship Uinta Basin’s uniquely viscous, waxy crude in heated train cars to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The railroad is expected to increase oil production and economic activity in the rural region of northeastern Utah.
“There are so many opportunities that the railroad will afford,” said Greg Miles, Duchesne County commissioner and co-chair of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition that is shepherding the Uinta Basin Railway, during a meeting earlier this month when the coalition unanimously approved a request for $2 billion in private activity bonds to fund the railroad. “There is a lot of support and appreciation for the hard work going into this project.”
That support and appreciation fades quickly outside of Utah. The plan would route as many as five trains a day — each a mile long and carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of the waxy crude — through Colorado, along the Colorado River, through Grand County and metro Denver.
Environmental groups unsuccessfully appealed the Forest Service’s 2022 approval of a special use permit allowing new tracks in a roadless portion of the Ashley National Forest. Those same groups have sued the Forest Service in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. and — along with Eagle County — have filed a lawsuit in D.C. Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the transportation board’s approval of the railroad.
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And Bennet and Neguse have been urging Biden appointees to uphold the president’s order that all federal agencies must weigh the climate impacts of major projects. Environmental groups have called the processing of up to 4 billion gallons of Uinta Basin crude “a massive carbon bomb.” The two politicians have pointed to recent train derailments — including the fiery explosion Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio — as reasons to review the approval of the Uinta Basin railroad. A derailment along the Colorado River could be “catastrophic” to wildlife, Colorado communities and major metro areas downstream, Bennet and Neguse wrote.
A chorus of Colorado municipalities and organizations are expressing concerns about the environmental review of the railroad, arguing the derailment threats to communities outside Colorado should have been considered in a review that concluded the new railroad would increase rail traffic and double the chances of a derailment and oil spill along the route to the Gulf Coast.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s review of the Surface Transportation Board environmental analysis of the plan “focused solely on the project’s risks in Utah, with no evaluation of its potential harm to Colorado, including the risk of derailment and oil spill in the headwaters of the river,” reads the letter from Bennet and Neguse to KC Becker, the EPA’s regional administrator who served in the Colorado House from 2013 through 2021.