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The Uintah Basin Railway Is An Existential Threat To Palisade. Now Backers Are Petitioning Approval To Be Restored.

Editors Note: The Palisade Post generally tries to take an unbiased view of the news. However, the proposed Uintah Basin Railway is a direct risk to Palisade. Mile+ long oil trains rolling through Palisade multiple times per day would destroy the quality of life in this town, and present a direct hazardous materials threat to both the town and the Colorado River.

by David O. Williams, Colorado Newsline
March 13, 2024

The proponents of a planned short-line Utah railroad that would dramatically increase oil-train traffic through Colorado last week filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review of litigation that derailed the project late last year.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in August overturned the federal approval of the 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway, which would connect the oil fields of northeastern Utah to the nation’s main rail network, ruling regulatory agencies didn’t properly scrutinize the potential downstream environmental impacts. In November, the court rejected a petition for rehearing, and in January the U.S. Forest Service withdrew its approval for the segment of line crossing the agency’s land.

Now the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, formed by seven oil-rich counties in the area to fund and facilitate the rail project, is seeking more state money to take its case all the way to the Supreme Court.

In its March 4 filing, the infrastructure coalition claims the D.C. appeals court decision took too broad a view of the National Environmental Policy Act review required of the rail project, and that the federal regulatory agencies did not have to consider the impacts to Colorado or the Gulf Coast communities where the oil would be refined.

At stake is whether federal regulatory agencies must consider downstream impacts such as potential oil spills, wildfires and carbon emissions contributing to global warming. The coalition cites a 2004 case, Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen, which found an agency’s limited authority might not require it to consider more far-reaching impacts under NEPA.

“Boundless NEPA review hurts project proponents and the public too,” the coalition argues in its March 4 petition to the Supreme Court. “The time and expense of environmental review is a barrier to all kinds of new projects — including clean energy projects — that prevents some of them from ever getting off the ground. In the end, the only way to stop runaway scoping from overwhelming the NEPA process is to consistently apply this Court’s holding in Public Citizen.”

There have been different interpretations of the Public Citizen decision by various appellate courts since 2004.

Down the Line: Tracing the route — and risks — of Utah’s proposed Colorado-bound oil trains

Opponents of the Uinta Basin Railway, including one of the environmental groups that sued to stop it, are skeptical the Supreme Court will take up the case given the appellate court’s finding of numerous NEPA violations.

“This appeal is a last-ditch attempt to dodge environmental laws to facilitate a climate train wreck,” said Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The courts have made crystal clear that plans for this proposed oil train violate numerous federal laws. It’s unfortunate that Uinta Basin Railway backers are wasting more taxpayer money by taking the case to the Supreme Court. It’s time for this catastrophic oil-industry project to die once and for all.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and Colorado’s Eagle County were the prime litigants suing to stop the rail project, and they were supported by several other environmental groups, towns and counties in Colorado.

In the meantime, Utah’s oil industry has been working on loadout facility expansion projects that would allow for a big increase in trucking traffic in the area and increase export capacity nearly to the level the rail project would have been able to accommodate, with significant negative air-quality impacts.

Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, led by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, remain opposed to the Utah oil expansion increasing train traffic along the endangered Colorado River, while Utah Sen. Mike Lee and U.S. Rep. John Curtis of Provo have been trying — unsuccessfully so far — to reinstate approval of the rail project in amendments to various appropriations bills.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.