Two Colorado Democrats this week are making a last ditch effort to block a proposed 88-mile railway in Utah that they say would drive up climate emissions and could lead to a catastrophic oil spill in the upper Colorado River, contaminating a vital water supply for nearly 40 million Americans that’s already critically threatened by deepening drought.
The Uinta Basin Railway was approved by the Surface Transportation Board in 2021 and received provisional approval by the U.S. Forest Service last summer to travel through a 12-mile roadless area of the Ashley National Forest. It would connect the oil fields of Utah’s Uinta Basin to the national rail network and refineries on the Gulf Coast. The project is estimated to quadruple the region’s crude production to upwards of 350,000 barrels per day that would be transported by freight via the national rail network, which includes a stretch of railroad that runs directly alongside the Colorado River for more than 100 miles.
But in a letter sent Monday, Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse urged U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack—who oversees the Forest Service—to block construction of the Uinta Basin Railway until a more thorough review is conducted to assess the project’s potential threats to public safety and the environment.
“This review is especially critical in light of the recent train derailment and environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which has laid bare the threat of moving hazardous materials by rail,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “A train derailment that spills oil in the headwaters of the (Colorado) 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.”
The lawmakers also expressed concerns that the project could exacerbate climate change, which they say is already wreaking havoc in their state. Many Colorado communities along the proposed railway, they said, are still recovering from extreme wildfires, severe flooding and historically low water levels caused in part by the West’s ongoing megadrought.
“It is beyond reckless to expose these sensitive areas of our state to these additional risks,” the Democrats wrote, referring to the proposed rail line. “Nor should we endanger the residents of Denver, where the project is estimated to quadruple the number of rail cars carrying hazardous materials through the city.”
The project’s developers have defended their proposal, saying environmentalists are overstating its potential climate, ecological and safety risks. And despite ongoing legal challenges and growing opposition from environmental groups and several Colorado counties, construction of the Uinta Basin project is expected to begin next year. Last July, the Forest Service essentially cleared the railway project to move forward when it upheld its decision allowing the route to go through the Ashley National Forest.
Environmentalists have criticized the Biden administration for that decision, saying it goes against the president’s climate commitments, including to slash U.S. emissions in half by 2030. Because of the increased oil production in the Uinta Basin, climate activists have projected that the project will result in an additional 53 million tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere every year—roughly the same amount as the combined annual emissions of the nation’s three largest coal-fired power plants.
Activists are also protesting an effort by the project’s developers to secure up to $2 billion in government-approved bonds to subsidize the project’s construction costs.
“The taxpayers should not be subsidizing a massive carbon bomb, which would appear to be in direct contradiction to the president’s executive orders to all departments that directs them to take all actions necessary to address the climate crisis,” Ted Zukoski, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is fighting the Utah train project, told the Colorado Sun. “This will pour up to 4 billion gallons of gasoline every year onto our climate fire. But it’s a good deal for some Utah oil companies. Not so much for everyone else.”
The Uinta Basin Railway has seen increased scrutiny ever since a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, back in February, causing one of the country’s worst environmental disasters in decades and sparking a nationwide debate over railway safety. The railroad industry has spent around $280 million lobbying Washington over the last decade, according to political watchdog Open Secrets. And in a speech following the East Palestine disaster, President Biden blamed years of industry influence on federal safety regulation as one of the factors that contributed to the crash.
While the number of derailments has fallen in recent years, the crashes have become more severe as the average train lengths have grown with fewer personnel per car.
The debate over railway safety took even more prominence this week after three more train derailments made national headlines. On Saturday, a second Norfolk Southern train derailed, this time in Springfield, Ohio. No injuries were reported. On Wednesday, a CSX Transportation train derailed in West Virginia after running into debris that fell on the track from a recent rockslide. That crash injured three crew members. And on Thursday, yet another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Calhoun County, Alabama—just hours before the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, faced questions from Congress regarding its East Palestine disaster.
“We see what the company did with their massive profits. Norfolk Southern spent $3.4 billion on stock buybacks last year and are planning to do even more this year,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said during the Thursday hearing. “That’s money that could have gone to hiring inspectors to put in more hot box detectors along its rail lines and having more workers available to repair cars and repair tracks.”
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