Federal government issues statement on environmental impact of Uinta rail as environmentalists step up opposition in court

On Friday, an oil transport railway to the Uinta Basin took a big step forward with the publication of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) identifying a preferred route for the 85-mile line that would connect the Utah’s oil field to the national rail network.

The Uinta Basin Railway, proposed by a group of Utah power-producing counties, would transport crude from a shipment near Myton in the west through Indian Canyon to a connection with the Union Line Pacific in Kyune near the top of Price Canyon. Four to 11 100-car trains would run the route each day, allowing the basin’s oil production to quadruple, increasing daily production to 300,000 barrels according to the EIS.

The controversial project is under consideration by the Federal Surface Transport Council, which is expected to make a final decision in the coming weeks allowing the start of permits and construction.

The single track railway would cross the stream at 443 locations, affecting 61 miles of stream, and could negatively affect 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat. But worse, environmentalists say, it would encourage increased development of fossil fuels at a time when the nation must reduce emissions of climate-modifying greenhouse gases.

The EIA takes only a cursory look at the impacts associated with increased drilling in the Uinta Basin, whose airshed already violates federal ozone standards, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This document essentially ignores critical environmental issues by planning to study them later, behind closed doors,” said Wendy Park, senior counsel for the group. “The people of Utah are already choking on smoke from wildfires, facing historic drought conditions and suffering from suffocating heat waves. This colossal waste of public funds is driving a dirty oil train that will only worsen our climate emergency. “

Sponsoring the project is the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, or SCIC, which has entered into agreements with Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners to fund the railroad; Rio Grande Pacific Corp. to exploit it; and the Ute Indian tribe, which controls significant oil and gas holdings, to participate as shareholders.

For years, Uinta Basin’s waxy crude has been plagued with transportation bottlenecks, as US Highway 40 is the only way to get it to market. Most of it ends up in the Salt Lake refineries, which pay a hefty rebate because producers have nowhere else to send the oil, which hardens as it cools.

A rail connection is expected to open up new markets, such as Gulf Coast refineries or the Cushing, Oklahoma hub for Uinta crude, but controversy had hampered rail proposals for years, long before the SCIC doesn’t do that.

A previous proposal was scrapped due to its expected cost of $ 3 billion, but now supporters say it can be built for much less.

Planning for the railroad was covered by grants totaling $ 28 million from the Utah Community Impact Board, or CIB, which oversees a huge amount of money from federal mining royalties. By law, this money is supposed to be used by communities to deal with the impact of mining.

The Center for Biological Diversity and other groups sued CIB, alleging that subsidies supporting an oil removal project constitute an illegal use of that money.

In Utah’s 3rd District Court this week, plaintiffs argued that SB176, a bill passed by the state legislature this year, inappropriately sought to break open IPC funding for a much wider range of uses than that anticipated by Congress.

“Under [the bill’s] definitions, the CIB would be allowed to fund a study of the most popular celebrities in the United States, a plan for a car dealership, a field study for a coal mine, the activities necessary to obtain a license for a food truck, activities necessary to obtain a land use approval for an oil refinery, as well as all the engineering, financial analysis and legal analysis related to any of these activities, ”Park said during the hearing.

Echoing criticism from many other groups, Park said the federal government had earmarked the money for a much smaller purpose – “helping local communities cope with the impacts of mining development.” The rail case could set a precedent for other projects benefiting the fossil fuel industry.

“By holding the CIB and the [Seven County Infrastructure Coalition] responsible, the court can send a strong message to these public bodies that funding fossil fuel projects to help private industry is a misuse of [Mineral Leasing Act] funds, ”Park told 3rd District Judge Adam Mow Wednesday.

Representing the state, attorney Daniel Widdison argued that investing in the railroad complied with the Mineral Leasing Act because the project would reduce the need to truck oil to refineries in Salt Lake City.

“If this project can get trucks off the road, if it can create higher viability or sustainability for other industries in the region or, frankly, if it can make oil extraction safer, all that would constitute relief from mineral extraction, “he said. “Recognize… that mining is inevitable. “

The plaintiffs ask the judge to end the CIB funds intended for the railway project and limit the scope of SB176. Mow took the matter under advisement.

Meanwhile, the project enjoys the enthusiastic support of state officials, who see a rail connection as a way to promote rural economic development in the energy-dependent Uintah and Duchesne counties, which constitute the the least economically diversified region of the state.

“The rail line will provide a future opportunity to transport a wide variety of commodities to global markets,” Redge Johnson, Utah’s director of public lands policy, wrote in the state’s official comments. “The railway is a vital infrastructure asset for the economy of the Uinta Basin, which is heavily focused on oil and natural gas development and will be an essential catalyst for new production by creating better access to global markets. The railway will be a vital stimulus to economic opportunities and job creation for the four counties of the basin and the Ute Indian tribe.

But environmentalists argue that the railroad would make the basin more dependent on extraction of fossil fuels, undermining economic diversification and deteriorating air quality.

“The project is highly speculative, but the negative impacts that the drastic increase in oil extraction in the region would have on the air, water, land, wildlife and climate are clear,” wrote the group in a petition. “This oil train proposal is totally against climate science which says we need to quickly reduce our use of fossil fuels and switch to renewables.”

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