Developers are seeking billions of dollars in tax breaks for a new oil railroad in Utah that will threaten the Colorado River and be a risk to the health and safety of millions of Americans while damaging Joe Biden’s climate credentials, campaigners say.
The 88-mile proposed Uinta railway is forecast to quadruple crude oil production in the Uinta Basin by connecting it to the national rail network and coastal refineries.
According to the plans shared with federal agencies, up to five two-mile-long oil trains a day would run more than 100 miles directly alongside the Colorado River – a vital drinking water source for 40 million Americans, 30 tribal nations and millions of acres of farmland. A derailment could be catastrophic for the river, which is already in crisis due to the region’s mega-drought, rising temperatures and reduced snowpack on the Rocky mountains, warn campaigners.
The railway could spur an additional 350,000 barrels of oil extraction a day, campaigners estimate, exacerbating the poor air quality in Utah, Colorado and Gulf coast communities while releasing millions of tonnes of planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually.
Federal agencies have issued or signalled their willingness to issue key permits, despite the president’s goals to slash planet-heating emissions in half by 2030, tackle environmental inequities and transition to clean energy.
The railway company says environmentalists are overstating the climate footprint, risk of derailment and ecological harm. It recently emerged that the developers are seeking authorization from the Department of Transport (DoT) to issue up to $2bn in tax-exempt bonds to construct and operate the oil train, through a program that has mostly helped fast-track rail and road projects with public benefits.
“If this goes forward it will be a triumph of corporate greed,” said Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental legal group. “The fact that we continue to have disasters like East Palestine and near misses over and over again is a regulatory failure that demonstrates the absolute power of railroad industry lobbying.”
More than a thousand trains derail every year in the US, and the number of derailed cars carrying hazardous material is rising. In the past decade, the railroad industry has spent around $280m lobbying Washington, and more than $50m on campaign contributions, according to political finance trackers Open Secrets.
The Uinta basin in eastern Utah contains large reserves of oil and gas but extraction, which is done by fracking and conventional drilling, has been limited by poor transport links. The Republican-controlled legislature, Utah’s governor and local officials support building taxpayer subsidised transport links to ramp up production, arguing that it would benefit the state’s economy.
One option involves flattening a section of the nine-mile canyon, known as the largest prehistoric art gallery, to build a road fit for a steady flow of heavy oil tankers; the other is the 88-mile railway.
The Uinta Basin Railway company is a public-private partnership between the asset management firm DHIP Group, formerly known as Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, the railroad company Rio Grande Pacific and the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. The seven county commissioners last month tentatively adopted a resolution to seek authorization to issue up to $2bn in tax exempt bonds.
The DoT was directed by Congress to issue up to $30bn in tax exempt private activity bonds via its Build America Bureau, which have so far mostly been to finance highways, bridges, and transit projects of public benefit. The seven-county coalition is expected to formalise its support for the bonds at a public meeting on Thursday. The final decision is down to Pete Buttigieg, the transport secretary.
The DoT did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile opposition from elected officials in Colorado has been mounting since the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on 3 February.
“The governor continues to share a number of the concerns that our communities and Colorado’s recreation and tourism industry have raised with the proposal,” said a spokesperson for Jared Polis, the Democratic governor.
“Derailments are seen as a cost of doing business but we’ve seen the future in East Palestine and for us this would be like killing the golden goose,” said Jonathan Godes, mayor of Glenwood Springs, a picturesque mountain town in Eagle county popular with tourists. “This railway will not impact what we pay at the pump but could add 1% to the country’s climate emissions, which I just can’t square with Biden’s climate goals.”
A coalition of environmental groups and Eagle county in Colorado have filed lawsuits to the DC circuit arguing that the Surface Transportation Board’s (STB) permit – the cornerstone requirement for freight rail projects – was granted without an adequate environmental impact review.
“East Palestine highlighted that every train incident can be catastrophic, and the risks have not been adequately reviewed,” said Matt Scherr, Eagle county commissioner. “These limited bonds are meant to be used for the public good, how can something so climate impactful ever be appropriate.”
A separate lawsuit challenging a provisional decision by the Forest Service indicating it would allow a section to be built through a 12-mile roadless area of the Ashley national forest is also ongoing. On Monday, senator Michael Bennett and congressman Joe Negusse from Colorado wrote to Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary responsible for the Forest Service, calling for the ruling on the roadless exception to be suspended until a proper environmental review is undertaken.
In contrast to the information submitted to the STB, according to Mark Michel, president of Uinta Basin Railway, said that many of the trains would go through northern Utah and Wyoming, not Colorado, and that the crude oil would be used for lubricants, base oils, cosmetics, and plastics not fuel.
In a statement Michel added: “The waxy crude is transported as a solid and thus, not a flammable or hazardous liquid which presents an environmental problem or concern to the ecological system if there were to be a derailment … think of this as a big candle being transported inside a tank.
“In the unlikely case of a derailment, clean up crews would simply pick up a ‘bunch of candles’ with shovels. For opponents to claim this would be an environmental catastrophe, shows a lack of understanding of the physical properties of the oil and how it is transported. Furthermore, the route through Colorado that Eagle county and other communities seem to be so concerned about has been a line in existence for a century. More hazardous things are transported up and down that line than this Uinta crude oil.”
Deeda Seed, the Utah public lands senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity which is campaigning to stop the railway, said: “Science shows even if the waxy crude doesn’t burn following a spill, the mess will be difficult to clean up … This is a project with appalling consequences that will benefit only a few private businesses, it is entirely contrary to public interest.”
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