Friday, September 29, 2023
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Permit rejection by DC Circuit derails proposed Utah oil railway

The court found that the board failed to look at the complete environmental impact when approving the project

WASHINGTON (CN) — A planned rail line to transport oil and gas from Utah is off the tracks following a D.C. Circuit panel's rejection of an essential permit Friday. 

"This ruling is a win for communities across the West and is critical for ensuring a sustainable climate future," said Carly Ferro, executive director of the Utah Sierra Club. "From its onset, this project's process has been reckless and egregious. But today, the people and the planet prevailed." 

The court rejected the U.S. Surface Transportation Board's permit for the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, designed to quadruple oil production in Utah's Uinta Basin, finding the board failed to analyze the railway's potential harm to the environment comprehensively. 

"The court's rejection of this oil railway and its ensuing environmental damage is a victory for the climate, public health and wild landscapes," said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, legal director for WildEarth Guardians. "The public shouldn't have to shoulder the costs of the railway's environmental degradation while the fossil fuel industry reaps unprecedented profits from dirty energy."

The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, an independent political subdivision of the state of Utah composed of seven different member counties, petitioned the board in 2020 to allow for the construction and operation of the 85-mile common carrier rail line. 

The proposed Uiata Basin Railway would connect Utah's Uinta Basin near South Myton Bench and Leland Bench to the national rail network allowing the crude oil to travel through the Colorado Rockies to Gulf Coast refineries. 

Trucks transport the crude oil at a low rate due to geographical obstacles, but the railway could quadruple production in the basin, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The board granted the coalition a permit allowing the proposed railway to forego the usual application process. In granting the exemption, the board agreed with the coalition that expediting the process would create the potential to provide substantial economic stimulation after high unemployment linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Petitioners who challenged the board's approval include various environmental organizations and Eagle County, Colorado, that claim it will be affected by the railway. 

"This is an enormous victory for our shared climate, the Colorado River and the communities that rely on it for clean water, abundant fish and recreation," said Deeda Seed, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Uinta Basin Railway is a dangerous, polluting boondoggle that threatens people, wildlife and our hope for a livable planet. The Biden administration needs to dismantle this climate bomb and throw it in the trashcan where it belongs."

The court found the board's lack of rigor in reviewing the environmental impact violated the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring federal agencies to examine the environmental effects of proposed federal actions in three ways.

Firstly, the board only looked at data concerning the area adjacent to the proposed rail line and within several hundred feet of the rail line rather than the impact the line could have upstream, downstream and on the communities receiving the crude oil. 

"The board provides no reason why it could not quantify the environmental impacts of the wells it reasonably expects in this already identified region," U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote. 

The board's other two violations include not looking hard enough at wildfire risk and effects on water resources downline, and failing to explain the lack of available information on local accident risk. 

According to the now-vacated environmental study, the railway would dig up more than 400 Utah streams and strip bare 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat, including crucial areas that pronghorn and mule deer need to survive. The petitioners are hopeful the rejection means the end of the line for the railway. 

"This decision is a win for public health and the environment," said Jonny Vasic, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment executive director. "The court ruled the Surface Transportation Board conducted an environmental review that failed to meet the requirements of the law. The people of Utah can breathe a sigh of relief. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end for the Uinta Basin Railway."

Categories / Appeals, Energy, Environment

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