Federal government yanks permit for controversial Utah oil rail line through Colorado

BNSF oil train


Plans to ship Utah’s Uinta Basin crude oil on a rail line through Colorado and eventually to Oklahoma’s Cushing hub just got harder—if not impossible.

The proposed Unita Basin Railway Project was fought by western Colorado Counties who feared train derailments could cause environmental catastrophes. This week, the U.S. Forest Seervice withdrew a federal permit for a section of the Railway that would connect Utah oil fields to Cushing and to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The planned 88-mile rail route would have linked with freight lines that stretch along the Colorado River. But it drew opposition, not only from counties and cities but also U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett and Congressman Joe Neguse.

The action by the Forest Service invovlved a right-of-way permit that would have allowed construction of the railway through nearly 12 miles of roadless and protected forest in northeastern Utah. It folowed an August 2023 ruling by a federal appeals court that struck down critical approval of the project in the Ashley National Forest. In that ruling, the Washington, D.C.-based appeals court agreed a 2021 environmental impact statement from the federal Surface Transportation Board had been rushed and violated federal laws.

“It’s a victory for the Colorado River and nearby communities that would be threatened by oil train accidents and spills, and for residents of the Gulf Coast, where billions of gallons of oil would be refined,” said Ted Zukoski, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups that has sued over the project according to the Associated Press.

Colorado Public Radio reported the Forest Service’s decision follows an August 2023 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals that struck down the Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the project. It only voids a 2022 permit it issued to build a new 12-mile section of railway through the Ashley National Forest in Utah.

The action also prompted a strong vow from Eagle County Commissioner Matt Scherr, one of those behind a lawsuit against the project.

“We will remain diligent and attentive to what we are sure will be further efforts to revive this project driven by special corporate interests.”

So, far the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition,the group backing the rail project had not commented on the federal government’s denial of the permit.