Forest Service oil transport plan would defy Biden climate promise
For the U.S. Forest Service, spewing 53 million tons of carbon pollution a year into the air is somehow compatible with President Biden’s executive order to address the climate crisis.
That order, issued in the president’s first week in office, commanded urgent action to “avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory.”
Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, who is poised to enable an 88-mile railway that would quadruple oil production in Utah’s Uinta Basin, appears to be a rogue federal agency director who’s defying his boss — or maybe he believes his own malarky.
In any case, that’s how he’s defending draft approval of a right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest in Utah to allow construction of the proposed Uinta Basin Railway. Moore claims this climate-killing fossil fuel behemoth somehow aligns with Biden’s climate plan. It does not.
Biden has promised to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. You can’t do that by allowing 350,000 barrels of crude oil to be extracted from prehistoric rock formations and loaded into oil trains, most of which will rattle across a pristine national forest and head east along the Colorado River, through the Western Slope and Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to Gulf Coast refineries.
It’s astonishing that Moore has tentatively OK’d this project. It adds insult to injury for him to tell us that the railway aligns with Biden’s climate goals.
The Forest Service chief should be honest with railroad opponents, including dozens of counties and local governments in Colorado and more than 100 conservation groups representing millions of people.
Instead, Moore refused to meet with climate and conservation groups and responded to the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, with this:
“The Forest Supervisor determined the proposed use of the project is in the public interest and supports President Joseph R. Biden’s policies outlined in Executive Order 14008 to rebuild our infrastructure for a sustainable economy.”
The plan, Moore explained in his letter, is to get that crude oil to the refineries as quickly as possible.
“The railway will bring economic growth to Utah’s rural, urban, and Tribal communities, as products move quicker and safer by railway than by tractor-trailers on a highway,” he wrote.
That so-called growth may be cold comfort for rural Utah communities that have lived through many generations of fossil fuel boom-and-bust cycles. And there’s nothing “safe” about worsening the climate crisis that’s driving unprecedented drought and wildfires.
Moore ignores the fact that Biden’s executive order sets as U.S. policy the goal of “significant short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
It says the administration “shall take steps, consistent with applicable law, to ensure that Federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution, and to require that Federal permitting decisions consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
The Uinta Basin Railway clearly fails that test. So will the Forest Service if it is approved.
In addition to being a ticking carbon bomb, the railway would devastate wild places and wildlife.
According to the federal government’s own environmental analysis, the Uinta Basin Railway would dig up Utah streams with more than 400 railroad crossings and bulldoze more than 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat. Bulldozers and train traffic would drive imperiled greater sage grouse from their mating and nesting grounds and, it is feared, wipe them out from the region.
Nearly all the proposed 12 miles of railway through Ashley National Forest would be on public lands protected by the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, adopted by the Forest Service to safeguard wildlands, watersheds and wildlife habitat. Plans call for blasting five bridges and three tunnels through remote, pristine landscapes.
What’s the Forest Service’s response? A railroad isn’t a road, so it’s all good.
The Uinta Basin Railway would also inflict harm downstream, as Western states are reeling from drought, wildfires and pollution caused by the climate emergency.
If this railway is built, each day up to 10 two-mile-long trains loaded with crude oil would travel the roughly 1,400 miles from Utah to the Gulf of Mexico, increasing the risk of fires and oil spills along the route.
The railway’s purpose is to increase fossil fuel extraction on public lands in the Uinta Basin. That will boost greenhouse gas pollution at every step in the process, from extraction to transportation to refining to combustion.
So please, Forest Service, save us the spin.
Randi Spivak is the public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.