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Opinion

Uinta Basin Oil Trains are a Disaster Waiting to Happen | Opinion

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by Quentin Young, Colorado Newsline
July 6, 2023

So much harm would result from the Uinta Basin Railway, but there’s still a chance to block its construction, and it’s not a stretch to say that lives could depend on doing so.

The proposed short railway in northeastern Utah — connecting the state’s largest oil field to the national rail network — would allow a massive increase in production of waxy crude oil from the Uinta Basin. That’s bad enough, considering that these fossil fuels would contribute to climate change at a time when the world should be doing everything possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

But much of the oil, a hazardous material, is expected to be transported across Colorado on its way to Gulf Coast refineries, putting at risk the Colorado River, fire-prone wilderness, and neighborhoods from Grand Junction to Denver.

A chorus of opposition to the project is growing as communities along its route become aware of its obnoxious qualities, which were highlighted in greater detail than ever before last week in a series by Newsline reporter Chase Woodruff.

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The series, called “Down the Line,” is the definitive account of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway and its implications for Colorado. The project is spearheaded by a public body, the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, in partnership with private interests, Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners and the Rio Grande Pacific Corporation, with the support of oil companies.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved the railway in December 2021 on a 4-1 vote. The lone “no” vote came from the board’s chairman, Martin Oberman, who warned, “The project’s environmental impacts outweigh its transportation merits.”

This all spells extreme danger. Even federal regulators estimated that spills from Uinta Basin oil trains will occur about once every five years.

Woodruff described what this means for Colorado: “Some of the state’s most scenic, fragile and densely populated areas could soon be traversed by as many as five two-mile-long trains of tanker cars per day, hauling an average daily load of 315,000 barrels of Utah’s waxy crude oil. That would be more crude oil than was transported by rail across the entire U.S. last year, according to federal data — making the Colorado River Valley and parts of the Front Range the nation’s new oil-train superhighway.”

As Woodruff notes elsewhere, the project would rank among the most ambitious sustained efforts to transport oil by rail ever undertaken in the U.S.

This all spells extreme danger. Even federal regulators estimated that spills from Uinta Basin oil trains will occur about once every five years. A spill into the Colorado River, a resource for 40 million residents of the parched Southwest, could be catastrophic. An accident that causes a wildfire could be devastating in remote, wild areas along the oil trains’ mountainous route. A derailment near neighborhoods in New Castle or Denver could put the lives of residents at immediate risk. 

These are hardly abstract concerns. The February derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio, reminded Americans of the very kind of hazard posed by the Uinta Basin oil trains. As Newsline was finishing production on “Down the Line,” an oil train derailed at the Suncor refinery north of Denver. The series recounts the many rail accidents that have occurred along the proposed Uinta Basin train route in Colorado, such as in Glenwood Canyon, the site of at least 21 train accidents since 1976.

“It threatens water supplies and the environment, should it spill,” Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited, told Woodruff. “We have more of an attitude of when it spills, not if it spills.”

Many Colorado leaders are getting the message. Among the state’s elected officials who have objected to the proposed oil trains are Attorney General Phil Weiser, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, Diana DeGette, Jason Crow and Brittany Pettersen. Eagle County, along with environmental groups, is suing to block the project.

But Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has taken a mostly hands-off approach. Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert — who has slammed the federal response to the East Palestine accident and whose district would be traversed by the Uinta Basin trains — has been unaccountably silent on the matter. And the Biden administration, having issued key permits for the project, is doing no better.

No project that enriches private industry while it imposes serious hazards for Colorado communities, creates intolerable risks for millions of water users, and threatens to exacerbate global warming is suitable for federal approval. Even if Uinta Basin oil trains defy the principles of probability and were never involved in an accident, their cargo is 100% certain to degrade the planet’s very habitability. The estimated increase in greenhouse gas emissions that could result from the project would be the equivalent of opening more than 14 new coal-fired power plants.

There are still opportunities to derail the Uinta Basin project, such as a denial of its request for tax-exempt “private activity bonds” or a favorable outcome in the Eagle County case.

But apart from institutional avenues of opposition, Colorado residents — the people who most directly could be harmed by the oil trains — have a role in voicing concerns. Grassroots objections, more than any other, could be most effective in applying the brakes.

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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.