A court struck down approval for an oil railroad in Utah. The Supreme Court could revive it.

The Uinta Basin Railway could quintuple oil exports from eastern Utah.

The highest court in the land will soon review a proposed oil railroad in Utah.

The 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway would connect remote, oil-rich eastern Utah to the broader rail network, including existing rail along the Colorado River — making it easier for Utah’s fossil fuels to reach refineries on the Gulf Coast.

If built, the railroad could increase waxy crude oil production in the basin nearly five-fold, from 90,000 barrels per day to 440,000 barrels per day, according to a 2021 environmental review.

In August, a U.S. Appeals Court revoked approval for the project, finding that the federal Surface Transportation Board did not sufficiently analyze the project’s environmental impacts. On Monday, the Supreme Court said it will review that decision.

“We are optimistic about the Supreme Court’s review and confident in the thorough environmental assessments conducted by the [Surface Transportation Board],” said Keith Heaton, director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. The group represents seven eastern Utah counties and is the public partner for the project.

“This project is vital for the economic growth and connectivity of the Uinta Basin region, and we are committed to seeing it through,” Heaton continued.

Colorado’s elected representatives fear that the project carries dire safety risks for communities along the Colorado River.

“Last year, a federal court agreed with Coloradans that the approval process for the Uinta Basin Railway had been gravely insufficient, and did not properly account for the project’s full risks,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a January statement. “A derailment along the headwaters of the Colorado River could have catastrophic effects for Colorado’s communities, water, and environment.”

The environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity also challenged the railway’s environmental review in 2022. The group argues that the project has significant upstream effects, like the impact of increased drilling on wildlife and vegetation, and downstream effects, like the impact of increased refinement on Gulf Coast communities.

Heaton disagrees that the Surface Transportation Board was required to analyze those effects.

“There’s no end to what that can mean,” he said. “Even if we went back and redid the environmental review, and looked at downstream and upstream impacts, it’s very easy for anyone from anywhere to come back and say, ‘well, you didn’t look at this.’”

He added that he hopes the Supreme Court will clarify what agencies must include in environmental reviews.

The U.S. Forest Service in January withdrew a crucial permit that would have allowed railway construction on 12 miles in the Ashley National Forest.

“It’s disappointing the Supreme Court took up this case,” said Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, “but the appellate court’s decision on this destructive project is legally sound and should ultimately stand.”

“The proposal for the Uinta Basin Railway cut corners from the start, but federal laws are now catching up with this climate and environmental catastrophe,” she added. “That will prevent this disastrous railway from being built.”

Park noted that even if the Supreme Court sides with the railway’s backers, the project will require additional permitting and reviews before it can be built, like from the Forest Service.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Monday that the state of Utah filed an amicus brief — submitted when an entity that is not part of a case wants to offer arguments to the court — in support of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition and the Uinta Basin Railway.

“While this particular case highlights the importance of a Utah railway to ship natural resources, the result of the high court’s decision is critical to the future of rural infrastructure in Utah and throughout the nation,” Reyes said.

The Supreme Court will be briefed on the case this summer. Oral arguments are expected to be heard by the end of this year, Park said.