Railroad industry sues to block new locomotive pollution rules in California

The railroad industry has sued to block new environmental rules in California that would require them to pay to offset their emissions.

SACRAMENTO (Calif.) (AP). The railroad industry filed a lawsuit on Friday to block the new environmental regulations in California. They argued that the rules would force the retirement of around 25,000 diesel locomotives throughout the United States before their zero emission counterparts were ready to replace them.

California's aggressive climate change strategy has resulted in some of the toughest environmental regulations around the world over the last few years. The state has approved rules since 2020 that will ban the sale new gas-powered vehicles, lawn equipment, and trucks in the middle of next decade.

These rules aim to gradually phase out gasoline and diesel powered products by prohibiting the sale of new combustible engine. The rules for railroads, however, would prohibit the use of locomotives older than 23 years starting in 2030. They would also force railroads set aside over $1 billion per year beginning this fall to buy zero-emissions locomotives and other equipment. California's ports are a major factor in the nation and railroads often pass trains between each other. The state's directive would have a huge impact on the country.

The industry claims in a federal court lawsuit that the technology of zero-emission trains has not been adequately tested and will not be able to handle the delivery of more than 30 millions carloads of cargo nationwide every year.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs ask a court to declare that the California Air Resources Board lacks the authority to issue such rules. They claim that the federal government is only able to regulate railroads, as it's a highly interconnected industry which crosses state borders. The trade groups note that over 500 companies share the 180,000 mile (289,682 km) of track in 49 states, Canada, and Mexico.

"While the urgency of action is real and undeniable, CARB uses unreasonable, flawed assumption to support a regulation that will not lead to emissions reductions," said Ian Jefferies. Jefferies is the president and CEO of Association of American Railroads. The industry trade association filed the lawsuit with the American Shortline and Regional Railroad Association. Railroads are working towards reliable, efficient, zero-emissions technology. However, policymakers cannot will them into existence.

In their lawsuit, the railroad groups claim that the rules are a sign of regulators' "lack of understanding and experience of the railroad industry."

A second argument used by opponents of the California law is that goods transported via rail contribute fewer emissions to global warming than goods transported via truck. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector accounted for the majority of greenhouse gas emission in 2021. However, rail accounted for only 2%.

The regulators did not respond immediately after the lawsuit was filed on Friday. The regulators say that they have to move fast due to the magnitude of the locomotive emissions problem. California Air Resources Board claims the new rules will reduce pollution caused by nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog and tiny pollutants which can reach deep into the lungs of people and have been linked to cancer. According to the board, it is estimated that $32 billion will be saved in health care costs. It also prevents 3,200 premature deaths.

California regulators acted before the EPA. The EPA announced last fall that they would consider tightening their rules on locomotive pollution, which were last updated in 2008. California's rule would require EPA approval to go forward.

California's transportation sector is largely responsible for the poor air quality. Los Angeles and Long Beach are two of the most busy ports in the entire world. The majority of the cargo is transported to warehouses in the inland region before being loaded onto trains for transport across the country.

According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2023 report, the top four cities in the U.S. for ozone pollution and particle pollution year-round are all located in California.

California's new rules will have the greatest impact on Union Pacific, BNSF, and short-line railways operating in that state. The changes will affect all railroads because they regularly exchange locomotives to ensure trains move efficiently across the nation. Every couple of months, a single locomotive could cross the country. All changes must be standard across the industry.

Major freight railroads have already begun working with manufacturers to test battery-powered locomotives. The first of these are now being delivered to Union Pacific railyards located in Nebraska and California. The major freight railroads are also testing alternative fuels such as hydrogen to replace their diesel-powered locomotives.

Wabtec, one of the world's leading locomotive manufacturers, has told California regulators it will be at least a few years before it can have battery-powered prototype locomotives ready for extensive tests hauling cargo over long distances. However, it did test out a prototype with BNSF in 2021 for a short period. Wabtec said that some other technologies, such as hydrogen power, face challenges due to the lack of fuel availability and the need for a new fueling system. Battery manufacturers might already be struggling to keep up with the demand for electric cars even without upgrading thousands locomotives.

Rail companies prefer to use locomotives for many decades after purchasing them. Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern both announced plans last year to modernize hundreds locomotives within their fleets. The goal was to increase the useful life of these locomotives and reduce carbon emissions. These upgrades do not reduce the particulate matter or nitrous dioxide emissions produced by these locomotives, but they have made some progress. These emissions are linked to increased cancer risk and other health issues, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding railyards.

Funk reported from Omaha Nebraska. Associated Press reporter Sophie Austin reported from Sacramento, California.

Austin is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America, a nonprofit program that places journalists into local newsrooms in order to cover undercovered topics, is a national service program. Follow Austin on Twitter : URL