Alex Veilleux: The Uinta Basin Railway is a climate train wreck

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.

We are in the midst of a rapidly closing environmental window during which we can arrest the progression of climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions, primarily from the widespread use of fossil fuels. Many experts now believe we have only a decade before entering an irreversible feedback loop of global warming that will result in massive losses of arable land, biodiversity, habitable coastlines and drinkable water.

But with the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway corridor, the Biden administration has removed another hurdle for a project that would need to quadruple oil and gas extraction from Utah’s northeastern counties to be economically viable. This would mean an increase in production from 65,000 barrels to 350,000 barrels a day, bumping Utah from the tenth largest oil and gas producer among states to the eighth largest.

The timing of this ill-conceived rubber stamp coincides with an already difficult political landscape for climate action in Washington. It is entirely contrary to the Biden administration’s proposed goals to address climate change.

The mission of the Forest Service is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations” and is in direct conflict with the allowing Uinta Basin Railway to proceed. It would require the destruction of thousands of acres of forest, 400 stream crossings and it would exacerbate climate change, which threatens the nation’s forests.

Environmental groups have been attempting to contact the head of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, for months to provide comment on the project, but to no avail. In early November, Forest Service Supervisor Susan Eickhoff signed off on a right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest.

The White House should be focusing on cleaning up and phasing out the nation’s fossil fuel extractive industries and the hazards they impose on surrounding communities, not expanding them. Shutting down this project would be a concrete step for the executive branch to take — using its authority to act on climate in the wake of the programs stripped out of the Build Back Better Act which recently passed the House.

The bill lost vital provisions, including the Clean Energy Performance Program, which rewarded utilities that increased their share of renewables by four percent each year and penalized those that didn’t. It also lost language enacting a fee on methane, an important issue for the Uinta Basin, the host for many orphan wells that leak methane and ozone into the airshed.

The bill is now in the Senate, where it will likely get weakened even further. Furthermore, the Supreme Court is likely poised to severely hinder the EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to address climate change.

With dwindling tools to address the climate crisis, stopping this Uinta Basin train in its tracks is a straightforward strategy to help meet the administration’s climate goals. Suppose the legislative and judicial branches of our government are actively working against sound climate policy. In that case, the executive branch needs to step in to stop projects like the Uinta Basin Railway.

Alex Veilleux

Alex Veilleux is a policy associate for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).

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