Clean air rule could derail California’s freight train industry, lawmaker warns

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A California regulation created to limit air pollution from freight trains risks 20,000 new jobs and would worsen greenhouse gas emissions rather than lower them, an Inland Empire congressmember said.

Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia, is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency not to grant a waiver that would allow the In-Use Locomotive Regulation to take effect.

In a letter co-signed by 74 congressmembers, Obernolte told EPA Administrator Michael Regan that the rule, adopted in April 2023 by the California Air Resources Board and set to start taking effect in 2030, is unnecessary and impossible to follow because the required technology doesn’t exist.

Trains account for just 0.5% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — which are responsible for climate change — and despite the industry taking steps to cut those emissions, the rule “has the potential to undermine the progress made by the railroads,” Obernolte’s letter read.

“Forcing the adoption of unproven technology could inadvertently move freight from the rail sector to (the) heavy-duty trucking sector,” which emits far more pollution, the letter added.

Obernolte, whose district includes cities in San Bernardino County’s High Desert as well as parts of Colton, Highland, Loma Linda, Redlands and San Bernardino, fears the rule will cause Burlington Northern Santa Fe to pull the plug on its $1.5 billion Barstow International Gateway project, killing 20,000 jobs, because the project would need all-electric locomotives that don’t exist.

Rail projects such as the Barstow gateway “would be canceled completely as development would become cost-prohibitive” if the rule were enacted, Burlington Northern spokesperson Lena Kent said via email.

Also, “thousands of existing and promised well-paying jobs would vanish” and “the cost of goods movement through California would increase to the point of being non-competitive, shifting cargo to other ports outside the state,” Kent said.

“Our national supply chain and West Coast port throughput would suffer without new rail projects that improve efficiency.”

The air resources board declined to comment on Obernolte’s letter. But according to information given by board spokesperson Lys Mendez, emissions from just one train exceed those from 400 heavy-duty trucks.

“The reduced nitrogen oxide and diesel particulate matter — of which there is no known safe level of exposure — will bring an estimated $32 billion in health savings by preventing 3,200 premature deaths and 1,500 emergency room visits and hospitalizations,” the statement provided by Mendez said.

“Cancer risk from exposure to air toxins within one mile of locomotive operations is expected to be reduced by 90%. Many rail operations, particularly in urban areas, tend to be located in places that are home to low-income residents and communities of color, who often bear a disproportionate burden from the impacts of air pollution,” the statement added.

Toxic exhaust from trucks and trains serving the logistics industry is a sensitive topic in the Inland Empire, where mega-warehouses stretching into the horizon support tens of thousands of jobs.

Environmental justice activists want the government to strictly limit or eradicate diesel emissions linked to cancer, asthma, heart attacks and other health problems. But logistics industry advocates warn the rules sought at the state and federal levels have unrealistic timelines and the industry is already taking steps to curb emissions.

Under the rule, by 2035, all locomotives operating in California will have to run in “zero-emission configuration” or in a way that doesn’t emit pollution.

“Presently, there are no commercially available freight locomotives that could comply with the (zero-emission) requirements of the regulation,” Obernolte’s letter states.

The rule also forces freight train companies to deposit money into a spending account that can only be used for zero-emission technology, with the amount deposited based on their trains’ emissions.

Burlington Northern and Union Pacific — the two Class I freight train companies operating in California — could each be forced to deposit up to $800 million a year, Obernolte’s letter read.

If the EPA adopts the rule, it could lead to a byzantine level of state-by-state locomotive regulations, disrupting a freight train industry that’s best regulated by the federal government, Obernolte said.

Responding to Obernolte’s questions at a Wednesday, May 15, House committee hearing, Regan said his agency is “going through a very thorough evaluation right now (of the rule) and we’ve got a lot of things to consider.”

“I have pledged, and so have my team members, to follow the science and follow the law. We have to be sure that any action that we take does both of those things, especially follow the law,” Regan said.

He did not provide a timeframe for when the EPA will decide whether to grant the rule a waiver.

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