Judge sides with California in rail industry suit over oil spill law

A federal judge dismissed a challenge by two major railroads of a California law requiring the companies to have oil spill prevention and response plans and to certify their ability to pay for the cleanup should one occur.

Last October, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific, joined by an industry trade group, sued the state, claiming that four federal laws governing rail transportation preempted California’s S.B. 861. State lawmakers passed that law a year ago to address concerns about a rising volume of crude oil moving by train into California along major waterways.

The suit named Tom Cullen, California’s administrator for Oil Spill Prevention and Response, and state Attorney General Kamala Harris as defendants. They filed a motion to dismiss the case, as the law still lacked enforcement mechanisms and the state had yet to threaten any penalties.

On Thursday, Judge Troy Nunley of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, sided with Cullen and Harris, agreeing that the law could not be challenged before it was even enforced.

Nunley said the railroads “only generally allege that they will be injured once the regulations come out” and that “those injuries would be the cost of complying with the statute.”

“Plaintiffs cannot be coerced into complying with regulations that are not in force or even in existence,” he wrote.

Late Friday, it wasn’t clear how the railroads would respond to Nunley’s ruling, which did not address the key question of whether federal laws preempt California’s requirements.

California has become a major battleground over the growing volumes of crude oil transported by rail. Companies that plan to build new terminals at refineries and expand existing ones have met with resistance from environmental and community groups.

A series of fiery accidents across North America since 2013 has put pressure on government agencies and industry groups to improve the safety of the shipments.