Photo by Raleigh Burleigh

Oil producers want to quadruple the amount of fracked waxy crude that comes out of Utah’s Uinta Basin. Between 80,000 and 90,000 barrels per day are currently trucked to refineries in Salt Lake City, but refinery production there is capped due to air pollution on the Wasatch Front.

So, Utah officials and oil producers have pinned their hopes on the 88-mile Uinta Basin Railway (UBR) to link the Basin’s oil fields to the national rail system, increasing production by sending the crude east through Colorado to refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.

In response, close to 70 Roaring Fork Valley residents showed up in Glenwood Springs across from White River National Forest headquarters on Saturday, Dec. 10 — carrying signs, playing drums and singing protest songs — to say no to the UBR.

“We’re sending a message to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to revoke the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) permit that allows the UBR to cut through the Ashley National Forest in Utah,” Will Hodges, coordinator for 350 Roaring Fork, told the Sopris Sun. The group is part of a network called Halt the Harm, which organized similar protests in Boulder, Denver, Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. last week.

The network also includes social justice groups on the Gulf Coast. “The more refining of crude oil and gas that we’re doing down in Louisiana continues to fall most heavily on low-income, Black and brown communities who have to live next to these petro-chemical plants,” Hodge explained. “So we’re concerned about local impacts, about the disproportionately impacted communities and we’re also concerned about the global impacts.”

USFS officials in Utah approved a permit in July, allowing 12 miles of the railway to cut through an inventoried roadless area in the Ashley National Forest. While the approval is in place, the actual permit has not been issued. Hodges said Vilsack has the authority to revoke it. “We could stop this railway and then they can’t get as much oil out of the Uinta Basin, which is a start for addressing our climate crisis,” he said.

Conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Living Rivers, Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, filed suit in federal District Court in September to appeal the permit.

CBD attorney Ted Zukoski told The Sopris Sun in an email that the permit has been held up due to required design-related actions and surveys that have not yet occurred. “The Railway cannot begin construction on National Forest lands until the special use permit is issued,” he said.

Meanwhile, groups are putting pressure on Vilsack, whose Department of Agriculture oversees the USFS, to reverse the approval. USFS officials said in an email to The Sopris Sun that it could be four to six months before the permit is issued. 

Photo by Raleigh Burleigh

Protect the Glenwood Canyon
The Vilsack strategy isn’t the only way conservation groups and Colorado officials hope to stop the train. After the Federal Surface Transportation Board (FSTB), a federal regulating agency, approved the UBR in December 2021, CBD and other groups filed suit in February 2022.

They argue, among other things, that the FSTB did not take a hard look at climate change impacts, including air pollution from increased oil drilling in the Uinta Basin, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions from burning gasoline refined from Uinta Basin crude. Eagle County also filed suit, adding concerns of reviving the Tennessee Pass rail line as a potential haul route. Those suits have since been consolidated.

Then, last summer, five counties and five towns along the national rail line through Colorado, including Glenwood Springs, signed an amicus brief in support of Eagle County. They claim that the FSTB ignored Colorado when analyzing the impacts of the UBR. Up to ten oil trains daily with 110 heated tanker cars each, capable of carrying 642 barrels per car, would travel the national railway through the state.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes told the crowd at Saturday’s rally that the railroad is part of Glenwood’s history but the amount of trains carrying heated crude oil through town every day presents a huge risk. “We’re concerned about what happens — not if, but when — a derailment occurs, whether that happens in Mesa County along Debeque Canyon or Glenwood Canyon or South Canyon,” he said.

Godes is also dismayed about climate impacts and the approval of a train through a roadless area. “Why are we taking [a railroad] through a roadless area in order to get to the main line and to bring it through Colorado?” he said.

Paula Stepp, Glenwood city councilwoman and executive director of the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, also spoke at the rally. She has been working throughout the region on water quality changes due to wildfires. “When I think about a waxy crude train derailing in our canyon and what that cost would be to mitigate, it overwhelms me,” she said. “Often people say, ‘We need the oil economy,’ but you also have to look at the cost of the oil economy and this would be the cost to us with any kind of derailment.”

Not to mention, she added, the water in the Colorado River.

Seven states in the West divide that water, as directed by the 1922 Colorado River Compact, among more than 40 million users. But, due to prolonged drought in the Southwest, they struggle to balance demand with an ever-dwindling supply. “If you start throwing in a factor of once we destroy the water in the river, what do we divide at that point?” she said.

Most of the attendees at Saturday’s rally came out to protest the Uinta Basin Railway for reasons including climate change impacts and threats to Glenwood Canyon. Hodges said he also wants to combat societal resignation and apathy.

“Some people are going to say, ‘Our whole economy runs on oil,’ and yes, that’s the problem,” he explained. “We need a World War II-scale mobilization from the federal government, states and localities to greatly wind down our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Photo by Raleigh Burleigh

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