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Proponents of Utah oil train take their case on NEPA review to U.S. Supreme Court

March 14, 2024, 8:23 am

An oil truck on U.S. Route 191 through the Uinta Basin in Utah in February of 2024 — the alternative to building the Uinta Basin Railway project (David O. Williams photo).

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.

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.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which 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: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is the editor and co-founder of RealVail.com and has had his awarding-winning work (see About Us) published in more than 75 newspapers and magazines around the world, including 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), the Anchorage Daily Press (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Casper Star Tribune (Wyoming), the Chicago Tribune, Colorado Central Magazine, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), Colorado Newsline, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Colorado Times Recorder, the Cortez Journal, the Craig Daily Press, the Curry Coastal Pilot (Oregon), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Del Norte Triplicate (California), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Gazette, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, Explore Big Sky (Mont.), the Fort Morgan Times (Colorado), the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), the Kingman Daily Miner (Arizona), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the Las Vegas Sun, the Leadville Herald-Democrat, the London Daily Mirror, the Moab Times Independent (Utah), the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), the Montrose Daily Press, The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, the Rio Blanco Herald Times (Colorado), Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), the Salt Lake Tribune, SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Sky-Hi News, the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Sterling Journal Advocate (Colorado), the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Health Magazine, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, Westword (Denver), Writers on the Range and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

One Response to Proponents of Utah oil train take their case on NEPA review to U.S. Supreme Court

  1. Mary Feldmeir Reply

    March 14, 2024 at 10:21 am

    Perhaps the group in Utah should spend their time and money on creating their own refinery.
    – No impact anywhere else
    – Increased jobs & revenue.
    for Utah
    – Other Western states could
    use Utah’s refinery

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