Deeda Seed: Utah governor should admit the Uinta Basin Railway’s grave risks

Spencer Cox is deceiving the people of Utah by supporting more oil drilling in Utah.

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Since 2014, the Price River Terminal in Wellington has been trans-loading oil from trucks to rail cars, opening a new path for Uinta Basin crude to reach out-of-state markets. It shipped about 7,500 barrels a day to Houston-area refiners in 2018.

There’s no polite way to put this. Gov. Spencer Cox is deceiving the people of Utah.

Perhaps even worse, he’s willing to risk our future — and that of our children and grandchildren — so Utah can make a dollar helping fossil fuel companies drastically ramp up fracking in the Uinta Basin.

Recently, Cox got help from U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, whose agency approved a right-of-way through Ashley National Forest and Indian Canyon that will facilitate the Uinta Basin Railway. If built, the 88-mile railway would encourage the quadrupling of oil extraction in the Uinta Basin by connecting it with the national rail network.

The governor wants Utahns to believe that churning out an additional 350,000 barrels of oil every day from the Uinta Basin is somehow good for us.

That spewing 53 million tons of carbon pollution — a conservative estimate — into the atmosphere will enrich our lives and make our state better.

That it’s OK to threaten our air, water and climate, even as the last few years of drought and wildfires have shown us that the climate emergency isn’t in Utah’s future — it’s here and now.

In a letter to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which is still considering whether to approve the oil railway, Cox and other Utah officials said the project “will help the Uinta Basin diversify its economy.”

With all due respect, governor, that’s horse hockey. It’s like claiming more coal plants would “diversify” Utah’s worsening air quality.

It’s not diversifying to double down on fracking in Utah’s rural communities, as the global climate catastrophe worsens, drought and aridification intensify, wildfires rage and oceans rise. It’s ecocide.

Far from diversifying the economy, the proposed railway would make the rural communities of the Uinta Basin, with some of the state’s highest unemployment rates, even more dependent on boom-and-bust oil extraction economies.

Utah is in the grip of an unprecedented megadrought fueled by unchecked climate change. The Uinta Basin Railway will worsen climate change, increase wildfire risk, harm our agricultural and recreation industries, and endanger our health.

In addition to the climate and economic damage, a federal environmental analysis shows the railway’s construction would dig up more than 400 Utah streams and strip bare or pave over 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat. This includes areas that wildlife like pronghorn, mule deer and greater sage grouse need to survive.

Every day the railroad, carrying crude oil on up to five 2-mile-long trains, would barrel through steep forested canyons, running the risk of sparking more wildfires.

Construction bulldozers and train traffic would drive greater sage grouse from their mating grounds in Emma Park’s remote sagebrush valley and, it’s feared, wipe them out from the region.

The Uinta Basin Railway also would destroy habitat for endangered plants such as the Barneby ridge-cress, found only at the edge of Indian Canyon, about five miles south of Starvation Reservoir on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Scientists say just 5,000 of the plants exist across about 500 acres.

In September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 22 animals and a plant would join the list of 650 U.S. species that have likely been lost to extinction. Never have we seen so many of the world’s animals and plants vanishing before our eyes. Scientists say we’re on track to lose another million species in the coming decades.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Together we can reduce carbon pollution, transition away from oil and gas extraction, and clean up the air and water that all life depends on.

We can start by stopping the Uinta Basin Railway in its tracks.

The Surface Transportation Board is considering the project’s environmental impacts and its decision could come any day. The railway can’t be built without the board’s approval.

Despite what Cox wants Utahns to believe, the truth is the Uinta Basin Railway — and the oil extraction it’s intended to unleash — would cause devastating, irrevocable harm to Utah and the planet.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deeda Seed speaks at a news conference by Stop the Polluting Port Coalition in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilmember, is the Center for Biological Diversity’s Utah campaigner.