Perhaps the only imaginable connection between trains and foie gras, the famous French delicacy obtained by force-feeding duck or geese to fatten up their livers, would be as an appetizer in the dining car of the luxury Orient Express.
Ah. Pas vrai.
A California court recently overturned the state law against selling foie gras because poultry regulation is a federal concern. And that’s just what the railroad industry is arguing about a state law enacted last year requiring it to develop oil spill response plans.
The law came about as an expected increase in crude oil transported to California by rail raised concerns about public safety and emergency response.
Like the restaurants that serve foie gras and the industry that supplies it, railroads have decided they won’t be forced to swallow a state law that they think is pre-empted by a federal one.
In the foie gras case, a producer and a restaurant that served it argued that California’s attempt to choke off sales ran afoul of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act. Last week, a U.S. district judge agreed, citing the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the ability to displace state laws.
Similarly, the Association of American Railroads, the rail industry’s principal advocacy organization, and two of California’s major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, argue that the Federal Rail Safety Act derails the state’s oil spill response requirements.
According to some attorneys who know the issue well, California’s law is heading to the end of the line.
“I don’t think the court will struggle with this,” said Kevin Sheys, a Washington attorney who advises railroads but has no involvement in the California case. “The law will be struck down.”
Environmental groups, however, argue that other federal laws apply to the railroads. Patti Goldman, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group, said the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, the latter passed in response to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, gave states the power to enact stricter oil spill response requirements than federal ones.
That’s in contrast to the Federal Rail Safety Act, which doesn’t allow states much room to exceed what’s required at the federal level. A court decision that weighs more heavily on the rail safety act would favor the railroads. A reliance on federal water pollution laws would favor the state.
“The structures for pre-emption in there are almost polar opposite,” Goldman said. “The federal government sets a minimum standard, and the states can go further. All of that is a structure that is meant to preserve state authority.”
Sometimes pre-emption works in California’s favor. Opponents of the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail system tried to slow down the project by arguing that it was subject to the California Environmental Quality Act and required extensive impact reviews.
But in a 2-1 ruling last month, the federal Surface Transportation Board said the project was exempt from the state law. Last week, state and federal officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, broke ground on the project in Fresno.
As a more practical matter, railroads have largely prevailed in pre-emption cases because courts have been sympathetic to the notion that a patchwork of 50 different state laws could unreasonably burden interstate commerce.
In a notable case in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, a federal court struck down a local law that prohibited the shipment of hazardous materials by rail within two miles of the Capitol. A busy CSX freight line runs only blocks away, and the law would have forced lengthy and expensive detours of hazardous cargo.
But a massive increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail in recent years, and with it an increase in high-profile accidents, has exposed gaps in safety and emergency preparedness. California is bracing for a big increase in crude by rail, and last year the legislature extended the state’s oil spill response requirements to cover inland waterways.
That, naturally, affected railroads, which historically followed rivers because of the level terrain for heavy trains, including California’s Feather and Sacramento rivers.
The Association of American Railroads declined to comment on the California case, but spokesman Ed Greenberg noted that railroads “have extensive emergency plans in place, which include procedures in working with local first responders” and have “stepped-up emergency response capability planning and training.”
David Beltran, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who’s defending the law, wouldn’t comment on the case beyond what’s in court filings.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, said the attorney general’s office had assured him that the law wouldn’t be pre-empted when it came before his committee last year.
“We feel comfortable based on the legal opinions we have,” Hill said.
He thinks it’s premature to predict that the law will be invalidated. But Hill said that he and others who supported it should be prepared for that outcome.
“Everyone would regroup and try to find a way to meet the goals that we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
Harris, who’s said she’ll run next year for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer, also defended the foie gras ban. She tried to have that suit dismissed by arguing that she had no present intent on enforcing the law while reserving the right to do so.
That prompted a quip from Judge Stephen Wilson in his 15-page ruling striking it down: “Defendant seeks to have her paté and eat it, too.”
Harris made a similar argument in the rail case.
“I think it’s going to be decided the same way,” said Mike Mills, an oil and gas attorney in Sacramento. “I don’t see a different outcome.”
Mills said the California case might put a federal solution on a faster track.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in August for a new regulation that would require railroads hauling crude oil to have comprehensive oil spill response plans. The rule would apply uniformly across all states, and it would achieve what California tried to do on its own.
“Oftentimes, litigation will produce a decision that forms the basis for new legislation,” Mills said. “Potentially, it could happen.”