Deeda Seed: Why President Biden must stop the Uinta Basin Railway and phase out fossil fuels

(Jacquelyn Martin | Associated Press) President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 7, 2023.

Welcome to Utah, President Biden.

As you visit the West with a focus on climate change and the environment, you’ll see that our state is blessed with an abundance of natural wonders. From southern Utah’s red rock wilderness to the rugged Wasatch Mountains to the vast, biologically rich expanse of the Great Basin and Great Salt Lake, this is a magnificent place.

It’s also a vulnerable place. The climate emergency is wreaking havoc on Utah.

Between the environmental catastrophe of the drying Great Salt Lake, heat waves, fires and floods, we’ve been through a lot. And this is just the beginning. Without bold action to stop burning fossil fuels, things will get much worse.

We need your help.

Thank you for creating the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument. And your restoration of Bears Ears National Monument was a great win for our state and for future generations. Investments in clean energy funded by the Inflation Reduction Act will move us forward in the necessary transition away from fossil fuels. Thank you for your leadership in those areas.

But here in Utah we’re extremely concerned that your administration is paving the way for a massive carbon bomb known as the Uinta Basin Railway. If built, the railway will increase oil production by up to 350,000 barrels every day. That’s nearly twice as much as the massive Willow project in Alaska (shame on you for approving that, by the way).

The federal Surface Transportation Board estimates that the oil extraction facilitated by the railway could spew an additional 50 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That would cause more than $2.5 billion in global damages annually, according to your administration’s conservative social cost metric.

This would be devastating to Utah, accelerating the Great Salt Lake’s collapse and all but guaranteeing more frequent and intense wildfires. But the consequences of climate change aren’t limited by state lines. More carbon pollution in northeastern Utah translates into more deadly heat in Phoenix, more smoke-filled days in Washington, D.C. and more extreme, coral-killing ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida.

The Uinta Basin Railway also poses major threats to the most important water source in the West.

Every day the railway would send up to five two-mile-long trains hauling crude oil across Colorado’s drought-stricken, wildfire-prone Western Slope, tracing the Colorado River almost to its headwaters. A derailment has the potential to catastrophically contaminate the primary water source for more than 40 million people in Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and across the West.

It would imperil the agriculture that depends on the river and push countless already embattled plants and animals to the brink. This is a risk we simply can’t afford.

As we reel from the terrifying consequences of a world spiraling toward an unsustainable future, I worry for my children and future generations. You’re the leader of the world’s top producer of the oil and gas driving this crisis and you have enormous power to confront the climate emergency. I beg you to take a stronger stand.

Declare a climate emergency. Stop enabling the Uinta Basin Railway and more fossil fuel extraction in Utah and on our public lands and waters, which account for one-fourth of the country’s climate pollution. The only way to slow climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels.

Our future, and more importantly the next generation’s future, depends on decisive leadership now to phase out fossil fuels and reverse the climate catastrophe. Be our hero.

Deeda Seed

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