Oil Train Project Hits Judicial Red Light

More good news from the courts!

It has become increasingly clear over the last few decades that even without climate change threatening to wipe out humanity, the fossil fuel industry is incapable of operating in a safe and responsible manner. They spill oil and gas everywhere, at almost every stage of production, and in a time when we’re facing both the climate crisis, and a water crisis (that’s made worse by the climate crisis), the oil company hobby of poisoning land and water is an increasingly unaffordable liability. When the question of oil transportation comes up, most of us probably think of pipelines, but for all their problems, the well-titled “bomb trains” are almost certainly worse. The disaster in East Palestine earlier this year is the biggest recent example of a bomb train in action, but most of the trains that earn the moniker do so by carrying oil.

As we all know, oil companies are dedicated to extracting and burning as much of the stuff as possible before doing so drives us all to extinction. To facilitate the process, there has been an attempt to build a new railway dedicated to moving oil drilled in Utah into the national rail network. See, there’s no money to build new railways for human use, but if it’s going to make billionaires richer at the cost of the planet? Well, money is no object. Fortunately, activists have been fighting this, and have just won a small, but important victory:

“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 WildEarth Guardians legal director Samantha Ruscavage-Barz. “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.”

Although the ruling does not necessarily permanently block the project—which would cut through tribal land and a national forest—Carly Ferro, executive director of the Utah Sierra Club, similarly called the decision “a win for communities across the West and is critical for ensuring a sustainable climate future.”

“From its onset, this project’s process has been reckless and egregious. But today, the people and the planet prevailed,” Ferro added. “We will continue to advocate for accountable processes to ensure a healthy environment where communities can live safely, and this win will help make that possible.”

The whole industry is reckless and dangerous, but given the absurd rate of derailments in the US, oil trains really seem like the epitome of irresponsibility. That means, of course, that they’re not going to stop trying to use them, but every obstacle we can place on the tracks is a win.

The [three-judge] panel found “numerous” violations of the National Environmental Policy Act “arising from the EIS, including the failures to: (1) quantify reasonably foreseeable upstream and downstream impacts on vegetation and special-status species of increased drilling in the Uinta Basin and increased oil train traffic along the Union Pacific Line, as well as the effects of oil refining on environmental justice communities the Gulf Coast; (2) take a hard look at wildfire risk as well as impacts on water resources downline; and (3) explain the lack of available information on local accident risk” in accordance with federal law, wrote Judge Robert Wilkins. “The EIS is further called into question since the BiOp failed to assess impacts on the Colorado River fishes downline.”

As the The Colorado Sunreported Friday:

The Surface Transportation Board argued it did not have jurisdiction to address or enforce mitigation of impacts outside the 88-mile rail corridor.

The appeals court ordered the Surface Transportation Board to redo its environmental review of the project. But the court did not agree with Eagle County and the environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity that the Uinta Basin Railway could lead to the opening of the long-dormant Tennessee Pass Line between Dotsero and Cañon City.

The court also did not wholly agree that the transportation board failed to adequately consider the climate impacts of burning the new crude, which could increase pollution and account for 1% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the Center for Biological Diversity celebrated the decision, with senior campaigner Deeda Seed saying that “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.”

“The Uinta Basin Railway is a dangerous, polluting boondoggle that threatens people, wildlife, and our hope for a livable planet,” Seed added. “The Biden administration needs to dismantle this climate bomb and throw it in the trash can where it belongs.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Congressman Joe Neguse, both Colorado Democrats, also welcomed the ruling in a joint statement.

“This ruling is excellent news,” the pair said. “The approval process for the Uinta Basin Railway Project has been gravely insufficient, and did not properly account for the project’s full risks to Colorado’s communities, water, and environment. A new review must account for all harmful effects of this project on our state, including potential oil spills along the Colorado River and increased wildfire risk.”

“An oil train derailment in the headwaters of the Colorado River would be catastrophic—not only to Colorado, but the 40 million Americans who rely on it,” they added. “We’re grateful for the leadership of Eagle County and the many organizations and local officials around Colorado who made their voices heard.”

The institutions of government are, with very few exceptions, designed to privilege capitalists, which is why it is so slow, painful, and sometimes impossible to actually stop destructive corporate activity, or enact changes to law and policy that benefit people in general. As I said the other day, I’m not inclined to place much hope in courts or the government, but I do like seeing things that make me question that pessimism.

On an unrelated note, does anyone need a Bluesky invite?


  1. says

    The Biden administration is willing to chalk up a few obvious defeats, that they can point at and say, “see! environmental consciousness!” (never mind that they allowed it to go so far that the courts had to block it) – meanwhile, out of sheer political expedience, to keep the price of gas down, they negotiated with the Saudis to produce more oil, while licensing drilling and fracking and shutting down a few coal power plants that were not cost effective, anyway. Since inflation is tied to oil prices, pretty much every anti-inflation move that does not entail “pump baby pump” is not going to work. The US is the world’s leading carbon-fuel producer, right now. The democrats cheerfully deep sixed the “green new deal” as soon as there was pushback and they might lose in the opinion polls.

    Meanwhile, this summer has been hotter than any ever recorded, and hotter than summers in the permian extinction.

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