Will the developers of the Uinta Basin Railway relaunch the intensive environmental review of their new railroad or appeal this week’s federal court ruling that derailed the project?
That answer could come within a month, but meanwhile, Utah U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, is steamed.
Lee said in a social media post that the appeals court decision “represents a missed opportunity for our communities to thrive” and “a needless setback for Utah.”
“The Uinta Basin Railway is not just about American energy: it’s about jobs, economic growth, and the prosperity of our great state,” Lee posted on Facebook. “It is deeply concerning to see decisions that appear more influenced by ‘woke environmentalism’ rather than grounded, data-driven evaluations.”
Lee said the ruling “undermines the integrity” of the regulatory process “and stifles innovation.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., this week blew up the Uinta Basin Railway project that would have funneled billions of gallons of waxy crude on railroad tracks along the Colorado River and through metro Denver. Uinta Basin crude already rolls through Colorado, but the new railroad would increase that traffic by five times.
Colorado’s local, state and federal leaders applauded the ruling, victorious in their vehement opposition to the plan that was approved by the Surface Transportation Board in 2021. (The board approved a new 88-mile track connecting Utah’s Uinta Basin oil fields with the national rail network and the appeals court agreed with opponents that the approval should have weighed downline threats and impacts of the increased rail traffic.)
So what now? The appeals court ordered the federal transportation board to re-do its two-year, 1,700-page Environmental Impact Statement.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition that is proposing the nearly $3 billion railway as an economic engine for rural Utah said in a Facebook post that it remains committed to the project and that the federal review “contains appropriate and thorough analysis” of the concerns described in the federal appeals court ruling. Emails to board members were not returned.
The coalition is facing opposition on many fronts. State and federal lawmakers in Colorado are pushing the Department of Transportation to reject the coalition’s request for $2 billion in bond funding for the railroad. They are asking environmental champions inside the Biden administration to weigh the railroad against the president’s promises to reduce fossil fuel consumption and green up the nation’s infrastructure.
The Utah coalition this summer launched a campaign to counter the negative press engulfing the railway project. The counter-offensive marketing kicked off with a June 1 editorial in the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News, written by the coalition’s executive director, Keith Heaton, and the head of the New York private investment firm leading the project, Mark Michel with Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners.
The duo said that to allow misinformation around the railway “to continue without truthful intervention” would be a disservice to the communities that would benefit from the new railroad with increased oil production. They said the new railroad would reduce the number of cross-country tanker trucks on the interstate and would bring “hope and promise” with high-paying jobs and economic stability to rural communities in eastern Utah. They also said the basin’s paraffin-rich crude is shipped as a solid – with the consistency of wax instead of viscous oil – and derailment would pose less risk to the environment.
“Think of it as transporting a candle,” they wrote.
The Surface Transportation Board argued in the appeals court lawsuit that it could not predict threats from increased rail traffic in other states or the processing of Uinta Basin crude at the Gulf Coast refineries. The board’s review largely focused on the impacts of the proposed rail in Utah.
Then-board member Martin Oberman wrote a scathing dissent to the Dec. 15, 2021, approval of the Uinta Basin Railway.
“I have concluded not only that the financial viability of the line is in serious doubt but also that the line’s environmental impacts significantly outweigh its transportation merits,” wrote Oberman, who in January 2022 was named chairman of the Surface Transportation Board by President Joe Biden.
Oberman, who consistently opposed the railroad throughout the board’s two-year study of the project, scrutinized the future demand for oil as federal and state lawmakers labor to curb oil consumption with electrification projects and car manufacturers transitioning to electric fleets. He noted how the world’s largest oil producers were bracing for “dramatic changes in the world oil market” as decarbonizing efforts continued.
More importantly, Oberman said, is that the Uinta Basin oil would produce as much as 53.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which would account for 0.8% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Add in the environmental impacts to surface water, wetlands and wildlife habitat and “the line is not worth these costs,” Oberman said in his 11-page dissent.
The Center for Biological Diversity was the lead environmental group in the appeal challenging the transportation board’s approval. The center has a pending lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals that challenges the Forest Service’s 2022 approval of a portion of the Uinta Basin Railway tracks through a roadless portion of the Ashley National Forest in Utah.
That lawsuit was stayed pending the outcome of the lawsuit against the Surface Transportation Board. The Forest Service and Seven County Infrastructure Coalition have 30 days to make its next filings in that case. So by mid-September, opponents of the railroad could get an indication of the Uinta Basin Railway proponents’ next move, which could be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Otherwise, there is a 45-day window for the coalition to officially seek a rehearing with the U.S. Court of Appeals and 90 days to petition the country’s highest court.
“Both of those are long-shot propositions,” said Ted Zukoski, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, noting that petitions for rehearing and appeals to the Supreme Court are rarely granted.