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Controversial Uinta Basin Railway project approved by US Forest Service

A black tanker train sits in front of a white train and white silos

Proponents of the project say it will diversify rural jobs and get Utah oil to market, but environmental advocates are pushing to block the project, citing environmental harm.

The US Forest Service issued permits last Thursday for the Uinta Railway project that will build a railway through the Ashley National Forest in Uinta County, with the goal of bringing up to 350,000 barrels of Utah oil per day to US markets.

Keith Heaton, the executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said building the railway will reduce freight traffic on rural Uinta roads, making roads safer and allowing petroleum products to get to market faster.

“It's very difficult for people and products to get in and out of the basin,” Heaton explained. “So adding a railway will … be a great blessing to the people in the Uinta Basin and the ability to create jobs, get products, goods and services in and out of the basin more readily in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way. And hopefully, much safer as well.”

Deeda Seed, a senior public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the project will harm sensitive ecosystems, and the people living near them.

“There would be pollution generated from the fossil fuel extraction within the Uinta Basin and moving those fossil fuels to refineries. And then there are the other environmental harms, which is digging up a roadless area, the Ashley National Forest, wildlife habitat concerns … and you know, during a time when we're experiencing an increase in wildfires and a historic drought,” Deeda said.

Carbon emissions from the oil the railway will bring to market are expected to represent around a 1% increase in total US greenhouse gas emissions, and US gas prices won’t see a benefit from the project until after the railway is completed.

Seed said investing in renewables in rural Utah will provide more stable economic output in the long run.

“The oil market, as we're seeing even today, is incredibly volatile,” Seed said. “Are they going to build it, and then it becomes a stranded asset pretty quickly, because there's no market for fossil fuels anymore?”

The project has gotten support from Utah representatives, including Governor Cox, as a boon for Utah’s economy and job market.

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.