The Uinta Basin, named after the Ute Tribe, is located in Northeast Utah and Western Colorado, about 200 miles from Salt Lake City. Streams from the Uinta mountains roll through the basin into a tributary of the Colorado River – supplying 40 million people with water throughout the drought-ridden West. Plants that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, such as the Uinta Basin hookless cactus and Graham’s beardtongue, flourish in the Uinta Basin. The ecosystem also harbors endangered species such as the sage grouse and black-footed ferret.
By all accounts, the Uinta Basin is a beautiful ecological haven. Unfortunately, however, it sits atop pockets of crude oil and natural gas, which are being extracted. To transport crude oil to the Gulf Coast where it will be refined, local governments and oil companies are planning to invest $1.5 to $4.5 billion to construct a new railway through the basin.
The Uinta Basin Railway is a proposed 88-mile stretch of train tracks that will blast through mountains, reroute 443 streams, bulldoze through endangered sage grouse habitat, appropriate private property and even fragment a roadless area in the Ashley National Forest. According to the U.S. Forest Service Chief, “a railway does not constitute a road.” The railway is projected to quadruple the region’s oil extraction from 85,000 up to 350,000 barrels of oil per day – resulting in an increase in air pollution, noise pollution, habitat degradation and a greater risk of water pollution, train derailments and wildfires. The region already suffers from chronic air pollution, falling below federal standards for ozone pollution set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
By quadrupling fossil fuel extraction in the Uinta Basin, construction of the railway is projected to increase U.S. carbon emissions by 1%. Escalating climate change will bring more wildfires and more drought to the region – at a time when the Biden administration should be actively trying to reduce carbon emissions to prevent further climate change-fueled catastrophes.
Uinta Basin is freckled with small cities and towns such as Vernal, Duchesne and Jensen. The region’s economic history can be summarized as a series of boom and bust cycles due to its reliance on fossil fuels. The whims of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the fluctuations of oil prices determine the quality of life for many people in the Uinta Basin. These fluctuations often send communities into periods of growth and stretches of economic depression that threaten small business and family security.
Proponents of the Uinta Basin Railway claim that its construction will diversify the economy of the region by connecting it to the global market. However, there is little evidence that the railway will be used to transport anything but oil to or from the region, especially because at least 130,000 barrels of oil per day will have to be transported to recoup the cost of construction. This will only cause harm and exacerbate boom and bust cycles.
If the railway is constructed, the communities of the Uinta basin will not gain a diversified economy. But there are viable options to re-stimulate and stabilize the economy of the region without large-scale ecological destruction. In the Uinta Basin there are potential sites for geothermal energy production and wind farms, and the entire region is suitable for solar energy production. Additionally, the region’s state parks and Ashley National Forest attract anglers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts – accommodating a growing tourism industry.
Although the Uinta Basin Railway has been approved by the U.S. Forest Service and the Surface Transportation Board, construction hasn’t begun. It’s not too late to stop this catastrophic project from happening. President Joe Biden has made it a priority to address the climate crisis. To uphold his commitment to a livable climate and to safeguard our country’s biodiversity, the president should now backtrack on the Uinta Basin Railway and cancel the project from moving forward.
This article by Sammy Herdman was first published by Mongabay.com on 3 October 2022. Lead Image: Endangered black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Image courtesy of Kimberly Fraser/USFWS.
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