Let’s Go Low CARB

Let me get this out of the way first. I’m an Eagle Scout (class of 2005) and the son of an Eagle Scout (Class of 1970), and I firmly believe in leaving the campsite better than I found it. That includes the broader environment, so my children have a better world than I did. I support rewilding programs and a growing and fully funded national park system. I even drive a hybrid and take public transit. I enjoy the outdoors and wish to act in ways that conserve this precious resource for future generations, just like Teddy Roosevelt.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is a touchy subject. It also sits in an unenviable position, trying to balance environmental needs and industrial policy. They’ve had some success; Los Angeles is no longer the smog-filled hell hole it once was. But they can also be highly problematic for those of us outside of California. Ever had to get an O2 sensor for your car that’s compliant with California regulations?

CARB can seek a waiver from the EPA to implement stronger protections than the current federal regulations. This is awesome—federalism at work, laboratories of democracy, etc. However, the rules CARB is trying to get through to apply its zero-emission (ZE) goal to all rail lines in California will have national and detrimental effects.

Implementing a zero-emission requirement on rail is problematic for four primary reasons. First, CARB lacks the legal authority to do it. Congress has established clear intent that the Feds are the only ones who can regulate rail. Beginning with the Interstate Commerce Act, followed by the Federal Railroad Safety Act, and concluding with the Termination Act, it’s pretty unambiguous. The courts have also confirmed this, most recently with City of Edmond, Oklahoma v. BNSF Railway Company (2021). Regardless of the EPA’s thinking, it cannot establish a rule that allows CARB to regulate older rail engines without being in conflict with existing law. Again, Congress and the Judiciary have been clear here.

Second, it regulates the wrong thing. EPA’s own 2021 data shows that total GHG emissions from the transportation sector represents 29 percent of all GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, around 2,000 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Breaking that sector down, Rail only represents two percent of GHG emissions. Two percent, or about 40 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Cow farts produced 189.7 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2021. The thing your burger came from produced 4.7 times the CO2 equivalent than the thing that moved your burger from the Oklahoma Stockyards to the farmers market to then make its way to The French Laundry.

Over the last thirty years, rail has seen a 9.8 percent reduction in GHG emissions. Over the same period, passenger vehicles have seen a 42.3 percent reduction, light-duty trucks have seen a 122.1 percent increase, and medium and heavy-duty trucks have seen a 78 percent increase in GHG emissions.

Thirdly, this just isn’t technically feasible yet. Something the Next Generation Equipment Committee (NGEC) has acknowledged during its discussions each year. I did have the opportunity to sit in on the 2023 meeting and got to see a really cool idea from Stadler Rail about a hydrogen-powered trainset for passenger rail. But one of the first things acknowledged was range anxiety is just as much of a concern as it is for many electric vehicle (EV) drivers. The simple fact is that batteries and hydrogen just aren’t as energy-dense as diesel fuel. And if you think Tesla fires are bad, and they are, and the East Palestine train derailment was bad, it was, a battery-powered train derailment will be cataclysmic. 

Finally, the way this rule is constructed would put significant pressure on the two primary Class I railroads in California (Union Pacific and BNSF) but would also have ripple effects for all seven Class I Railroads operating in the United States, including two based in Canada. Trains don’t change rail sets at state borders. If CARB were looking only to have ZE trainsets for rail lines that are entirely within the Bear Republic, this rule would likely cause many Class II and the short lines to go bankrupt as they are smaller and unlikely to be able to absorb the high upfront costs and the additional annual set aside for financing future ZE purchases. This is cash on hand that could be used for maintenance, safety, and service improvements.

A possible result of this added cost to BNSF and UP is that they will pass costs on to their customers, who will then likely pass those costs on to consumers.  Given the nature of our rail and port system, Canadian Pacific Kansas City, CSX, and Norfolk Southern will be eagerly awaiting the shift of maritime commerce from the west to the east coast due to the increased costs for rail in California. The Savannah and New York New Jersey ports are well suited to pick up any increase in traffic. CSX and Norfolk Southern already have the capability to build three 10,000-foot trains each in Savannah.

While CARB may end up reducing emissions from rail in the state of California, should this waiver survive at the EPA and the inevitable costly court challenges, it will end up a pyrrhic victory with fewer trains, less traffic at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and more trucks bringing goods in from out of state.