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Conservation Groups Sue Utah Agency for Funding Private Oil/Gas Railway

alexhiotrov/Adobe Stock
The Uinta Basin Railway was designed to transport crude oil from production fields across rural Utah to refineries in nearby states

Conservation groups have sued a Utah state agency, claiming illegal use of public money to construct a private oil-and-gas rail line.

The Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board awarded a $28 million grant to help the Uinta Basin Railway move crude oil to refineries in border states.

The suit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the nonprofit Living Rivers, claims the project will bring a significant increase in oil extraction and environmental damage.

John Weisheit, co-founder of Living Rivers, said the Community Impact Fund money is there to repair damage from the fossil fuel industry, not to subsidize it.

"These are public funds and they're supposed to be helping public communities," said Weisheit. "The Community Impact Board has discretion on which direction it goes, and they chose not to help communities as much as they are helping oil corporations."

The suit alleges the proposed 85 mile Uinta Basin Railway would increase oil drilling and fracking, strain public facilities and services, worsen the climate crisis, and harm public health. The Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board declined a request to comment on the lawsuit.

Weisheit said that prior to the state agency's approval of the grant in late 2019, the board heard - but disregarded - a warning from the Utah attorney general's office that the project was probably not legal.

He said Utah communities will never be able to use the rail system - although their tax money is building it.

"I can think of a lot of good things that this money could do besides helping oil corporations have a competitive edge," said Weisheit. "This is wrong. It's also illegal, and that's what the challenge is."

The project, originated in 2014, was intended to move crude oil from the Uinta Basin to a refinery complex near the Port of Oakland. But California officials denied a permit for the project because of its potential to cause environmental damage, leaving its backers to seek new sources of funding.