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An aerial view of the river in a canyon with an highway on the right and train tracks on the left
The Colorado River is paralleled by railroad tracks and Interstate 70 as it runs through Glenwood Canyon near Glenwood Springs on June 27. This summer, state and federal officials began a new round of negotiations focused on long-term operations at the river's largest reservoirs, lakes Mead and Powell. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Uinta Basin Railway plan to direct billions of gallons of Utah crude oil through Colorado has been derailed. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday agreed with Eagle County and several environmental groups and overturned federal approval of the Uinta Basin Railway, citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“They cut corners in their environmental analysis of this project particularly as it relates to Colorado and now they have to start over,” said Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu, who joined several environmental groups in opposition to the controversial railroad plan. 

The appeals court ruled that the Surface Transportation Board’s three-year study of the Utah railroad, which will connect remote oil fields with the national rail network and direct billions of gallons of crude oil through Colorado, failed to consider downstream impacts along the Colorado River. The railway is an economic development project by Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition

The Surface Transportation Board conducted a “poor environmental review,” the court found, by failing to adequately study the potential of oil spills, trail derailments along the Colorado River and the potential for wildfire in communities along tracks that will be carrying heated tankers filled with “waxy” crude from Utah to the Gulf Coast. 

“The limited weighing of the other environmental policies the board did undertake fails to demonstrate any serious grappling with the significant potential for environmental harm stemming from the project,” the ruling reads. The court ruled that the board “hurriedly disposed” of objections by railway opponents in the Environmental Impact Statement review of the project. 

The board in 2021 approved the Uinta Basin Railway, which planned 88 miles of new track connecting oil basins in Utah with the national rail network. The new railroad would quintuple production in the Uinta Basin with an estimated 3,300 new oil wells. The rail line in central Utah would direct 225,000 to 350,000 barrels of crude every day along the Colorado River to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. The Uinta Basin already directs its waxy crude along railroads through Colorado but the new track would increase traffic as much as five times. 

The plan galvanized opposition in Colorado, with dozens of communities opposing the project. Eagle County and five environmental groups in 2022 filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals challenging the board’s approval.

In recent months, several Colorado federal, state and regional lawmakers have urged federal officials to reconsider approval of the Uinta Basin with a focus on how a derailment of tankers carrying the basin’s oil in Colorado could foul the Colorado River and increase wildfire danger for railside communities like Glenwood Springs. 

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.

The court also found “the board failed to weigh the project’s uncertain financial viability and the full potential for environmental harm against the transportation benefits it identified” and ordered the federal transportation board to vacate its approval of the Uinta Basin Railway. 

If the board decides to relaunch a new environmental review of the project, it will include heavy scrutiny from urban and rural communities far from the proposed new track, Treu said. Eagle County was among the only Colorado communities to formally object to the Surface Transportation Board’s analysis of the Uinta Basin Railway, opening the opportunity for the county to join the environmental groups in a legal challenge in the federal appeals court. A new environmental review will likely include challenges from many more communities, Treu said.

“We raised a lot of awareness around this project and this time around, there will be a lot more eyes watching,” Treu said. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...