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Supreme Court will reconsider the Uinta Basin Railway’s overturned approval

Visitors pose for photographs outside the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Washington.
Jose Luis Magana
Visitors pose for photographs outside the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Washington.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider reviving a critical approval for a railroad project that would carry crude oil and boost fossil fuel production in rural eastern Utah.

The justices will review an appeals court ruling that overturned the approval issued by the Surface Transportation Board for the Uinta Basin Railway, an 88-mile railroad line. Arguments will take place in the fall.

The rail line would connect oil and gas producers in rural Utah to the broader rail network, allowing them to access larger markets and ultimately sell to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. Producers who are currently limited to tanker trucks would be able to ship an additional 350,000 barrels of crude daily on trains extending for up to 2 miles.

The railway is being pursued through a public-private partnership between infrastructure development and investment firm DHIP Group in Winter Park, Florida, and the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a body formed by eastern Utah officials.

Other proponents include oil businesses and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Reservation. They have argued that the railroad would be a boon to struggling local economies and boost domestic energy production.

The type of oil to be exported from Utah — waxy crude, which is semi-solid at room temperature — makes it more challenging to move. Currently it's heated and shipped in insulated trucks.

The oil's consistency, on the other hand, makes it less damaging and easier to clean up after spills, project proponents say.

The Supreme Court decision to hear the case was cause for optimism for the stalled railroad's developers.

“This project is vital for the economic growth and connectivity of the Uinta Basin region and we are committed to seeing it through," Keith Heaton, director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said in a statement.

Environmental groups and Colorado's Eagle County, which sued to challenge the project, nonetheless worry about safety and potential train derailments. From the railway in Utah, the oil trains would enter Colorado, following the Colorado River upstream and over the Rocky Mountains to Denver and beyond.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep Joe Neguse, both Democrats, oppose the project, asserting that an oil spill in the Colorado River headwaters would be catastrophic.

Environmental groups also contend that the rail line will allow more oil to be extracted and burned, contributing to climate change.

The federal appeals court in Washington ruled last year that the Surface Transportation Board's environmental approval was rushed and violated federal law.

The issue at the Supreme Court is whether the agency should have weighed the potential environmental harm of the railroad's main cargo, both where the oil is drilled in Utah and refined on the Gulf Coast, when it has no regulatory authority over oil production.

“It’s disappointing the Supreme Court took up this case but the appellate court’s decision on this destructive project is legally sound and should ultimately stand,” Wendy Park, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The railroad would still need additional review and government approvals to proceed even if its developers prevail before the Supreme Court, the group noted.

This story was written by Mark Sherman and Mead Gruver of the Associated Press

Founded in 1846 in New York City, The Associated Press is a not-for-profit news agency.
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