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Controversial Uinta Basin Railway is approved

A photo of an oil pump into front of a sunset background.
The Uinta Basin Railway is projected to cost around $1.4 billion dollars. It will connect oil producers in eastern Utah to wider markets.

A federal agency approved the construction of the Uinta Basin Railway in eastern Utah this week. The 85-mile rail will transport crude oil out of the region and increase production.

Utah leaders applauded the decision of the Surface Transportation Board, saying the railway will give oil producers in the region better access to wider markets.

Gov. Spencer Cox, R-UT, said in a tweet, “This will serve the economic interests of residents and businesses in Carbon, Duchesne, and Uintah Counties and all of Utah for years to come.”

The project is expected to cost around $1.4 billion. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition backs the railway and did not respond to KUER’s requests for comment. In an online statement, Mike McKee, the executive director of the coalition, said there’s been “superb cooperation” between stakeholders, tribes, federal, state and local agencies, as well as elected officials and the public.

Private groups will put up the money and operate the rail project. The final environmental impact statement said the coalition anticipates the Ute Indian Tribe will be an equity partner for the line.

The Center for Biological Diversity will continue to fight the railway, according to Deeda Seed, a public lands senior campaigner for the group. She said the railway will degrade local habitats and air quality, as well as quadruple oil production in the basin.

“Given what we're all facing in the West with the megadrought, with wildfires, I mean, we're experiencing the consequences of a climate emergency right now,” Seed said. “It's unconscionable that people would be considering literally pouring gasoline on that fire.”

Seed pointed to the “scathing” dissent offered by the lone Surface Transportation Board member, Martin Oberman, who voted against the railway. Oberman said the financial success of the project depends on increasing oil production, which is volatile. Additionally, he said the negative environmental impacts outweigh the transportation merits of the project.

A right of way for the project is pending final approval from the U.S. Forest Service.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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