Controversial Utah oil railroad sent ‘back to the drawing board’

Federal agencies overseeing the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, which would triple the region’s fossil fuel exports, must re-evaluate the project’s environmental impacts.

(Rick Bowmer | AP Photo) A train transports freight on a common carrier line near Price, Utah on July 13, 2023. The Uinta Basin Railway, which would connect to common carrier lines, would be an 88-mile line in Utah that would run through tribal lands and national forest land to move Utah's oil and gas to the national rail network.

A controversial 88-mile railroad that would significantly increase Utah’s fossil fuel exports and production won’t be built anytime soon.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Monday rejected a motion to rehear challenges to the Uinta Basin Railway. The court denied approval for the railway in August, stating that the environmental impact statement for the project was insufficient.

The proposed Uinta Basin Railway would connect the Uinta Basin, where 85% of Utah’s oil and gas production takes place, to the broader rail network, thereby making it easier for the oil to reach Gulf Coast refineries.

Once built, the railroad could triple exports from the Uinta Basin from 90,000 barrels a day to between 225,000 and 350,000 barrels a day.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which oversaw the environmental impact statement for the Uinta Basin Railway in 2021, must now start over and fix the issues raised in court. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must also vacate its previous biological opinion on the project.

“I’m grateful the court stuck to its well-reasoned decision voiding the Uinta Basin Railway’s approvals,” Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Federal officials now have to go back to the drawing board and any science-based study will show they should scrap this dangerous oil train once and for all.”

The Ute Indian Tribe, whose reservation is in the Uinta Basin, and Utah’s elected officials support the railway, arguing that it would boost struggling local economies and aid domestic energy production.

Eagle County, Colorado and the Center for Biological Diversity separately challenged the Uinta Basin Railway in 2022. The two cases were consolidated and heard together.

The federal appeals court unanimously found that there were errors in the Surface Transportation Board’s environmental studies for the proposed project. The agency did not consider upstream drilling impacts, effects on endangered animals and plants or spill and wildfire risks in Colorado, Park told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“It’s a financial boondoggle and a climate bomb that threatens Gulf Coast communities and the water source for 40 million people,” Park said in her statement.

The Surface Transportation Board does not comment on pending litigation, spokesperson Michael Booth said.

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition — a public infrastructure coalition for counties in eastern Utah that is a public partner for the project — filed the petition to rehear challenges to the Uinta Basin Railway. Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Surface Transportation Board joined this petition.

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition did not immediately respond to The Tribune’s request for comment.