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Colorado Attorney General Weiser warns feds against funding oil trains through Eagle County

April 26, 2023, 9:32 am

The dormant Tennessee Pass rail line along the Eagle River with Vail’s Game Creek Bowl on the horizon. Eagle County officials worry oil train traffic along the nearby Colorado River will increase pressure to reopen the line (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline photo).

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is the latest state official to decry a proposed Utah rail project that could result in a daily procession of trains carrying crude oil through sensitive Colorado River watersheds and the Denver metro area.

Phil Weiser
Phil Weiser

In an April 21 letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Weiser wrote that the 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway “poses an extreme risk to Colorado’s most important water source and the surrounding environment.”

The multibillion-dollar project would connect Utah’s oil-producing Uinta Basin region to the national rail network, allowing 350,000 barrels of crude oil per day to be transported to refineries along the Gulf Coast — a route that would run directly through mountain communities in central Colorado and the densely populated Front Range.

Backers of the project, led by a partnership between seven Utah county governments, applied earlier this year for $1.9 billion in “private activity bonds,” tax-exempt financing mechanisms whose issuance must be authorized by the Department of Transportation.

“Federal Private Activity Bonds should benefit the public and prioritize moving people, not goods for a private industry actor,” Weiser wrote to Buttigieg. “Furthermore, if approved, tax-exempt bonds devoted to the Uinta Basin Railway would have taxpayers subsidize a private venture, and one with significant community opposition. Such an approval would erode confidence in an important USDOT program that has aided so many critical projects and benefited the public.”

Several key permits for the new railway have already been approved by President Joe Biden’s administration, but Colorado lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse, both Democrats, have lodged complaints against the project with at least four different federal agencies, including the DOT and the Environmental Protection Agency.

More than a hundred local governments and advocacy organizations across the state have announced their opposition to the railway, and Colorado’s Eagle County has joined five environmental groups in suing the U.S. Surface Transportation Board over its 4-1 vote to approve the project in December 2021.

At least 21 oil train derailments have occurred in the U.S. and Canada since 2013, according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit Sightline Institute. Such incidents frequently result in fires and spills, including the 2016 derailment of an oil train in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, in which an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled.

“This rail project to transport waxy crude oil through Colorado poses significant risk to our State, our communities, and our natural resources,” wrote Weiser in his letter to Buttigieg. “I ask that the Department reject any use of tax-exempt Private Activity Bonds — or any other source of federal funds — for this project.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which 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.

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