Utah lawmakers are steamrolling ahead with a bill to strong-arm the largest railroad company in North America, with a top legislative leader accusing the company of being an unwilling and uncooperative partner in efforts to clear the state’s troublesome air pollution.

Despite protests from Union Pacific, complaining that the bill would mandate an impossible task, the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee on Tuesday unanimously voted to endorse HB405 and send it to the House floor.

Hours later, the full Utah House of Representatives fast-tracked the bill and voted overwhelmingly — Democrats and Republicans — to approve it, with zero votes in dissent. It now goes to the Senate.

The bill would require rail yards that have four or more switchers — or a railroad locomotive used to maneuver rail cars inside a rail yard — to power those switchers “wholly by a hydrogen fuel cell or electric power” by no later than Jan. 1, 2028.

The bill specifically targets Union Pacific’s Roper Rail Yard in Salt Lake City, which has “produced enough emissions that is essentially equivalent to I-15 at rush hour” thanks to its over 40 switchers that use decades-old, “tier 0” technology, University of Utah atmospheric scientist Dr. Daniel Mendoza told lawmakers.

Union Pacific is one of the largest “point sources” or highest concentrated sources of pollution in Salt Lake County, Mendoza said, noting that those switchers have to idle 24/7 in winter months to prevent the engine blocks from freezing or cracking.

“So unfortunately during our worst periods of air pollution, during winter time, is when these engines are constantly running,” Mendoza said.

The Marathon refinery in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Playing hard ball

Mendoza presented alongside the bill’s sponsor, House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying Utah has had enough with Union Pacific’s unwillingness to engage.

“I would hope ... that Union Pacific would come forth and voluntarily help solve our problem instead of being one of the largest problems,” Schultz said. “That’s my hope, but that has yet to happen.”

Other major companies like Chevron, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Silver Eagle, HollyFrontier and Rio Tinto have worked with Utah leaders to produce tier 3 fuels or invest millions to help improve Utah’s air quality, Schultz said.

“These corporations are great corporate citizens,” Schultz said. “They’ve stepped up, they’ve spent millions ... to help the air quality across our state. Union Pacific right now is not one of those good corporate citizens.”

While Union Pacific saw it’s biggest profit year in 2021 — raking in $6.5 billion — and is trying new technology for freight switchers in other states like California and Nebraska, “Utah isn’t on their list even though we have the worst air quality in the nation — and the world — at times,” Schultz said, noting parts of the state remain nonattainment areas under the EPA.

Schultz went as far to say that even though Utah lawmakers have tried discussing the switcher issue with Union Pacific in years past, the company has been digging in its heels. Schultz pointed to another one of his bills, HB181, which he said seeks to prevent Union Pacific from “holding hostage” widening of roads around railroad crossings by refusing to pay for maintenance of those crossings.

Schultz said Union Pacific has been playing hard ball, leveraging that bill.

“I was told on the last phone call that if I did not drop HB181 that they would not move forward on these discussions in regards to freight switchers and some of the other concerns in the state,” Schultz said.

“I think we have a bigger problem in the state with Union Pacific,” Schultz added. “Every time I turn around I hear of other issues. Workers — I cannot believe all the workers that have came to me and talked about safety concerns, and I have to admit, I have in the past worked to kill some of the bills that came in front of this legislature to deal with the safety issues with the workers.

“And so I am pretty disheartened, honestly, about their willingness to engage on this,” Schultz continued, noting it’s been five years since Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, began working on the freight switcher issue. “My experience hasn’t been that great, either, in working with them.”

Schultz received a warm reception from his House colleagues, including fellow Republicans who are usually in favor of a business-friendly environment.

“It’s unfortunate when we have to compel someone, a private entity, to do something, but I think this bill is a bill that has been a long time coming,” said Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti.

An engine at the Union Pacific Roper yard in South Salt Lake is pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Union Pacific’s response

Nathan Anderson, senior director of public affairs for Union Pacific, urged lawmakers not to support the bill, arguing it would set an impossible and unrealistic timeline for the railroad company.

“We appreciate the sponsor’s effort on air quality. We share those goals,” Anderson said. “Union Pacific supports new technology development that improves both air quality and operational efficiency. And we’re proud of our climate action plan, working toward a cleaner future. We expect innovation, disruption and transformation as technology develops to meet the needs of our industry.”

Anderson said Union Pacific intends to accomplish its goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050 “through a variety of actions, including the use of new locomotive technologies.” The company is currently working to reduce emissions through operating efficiencies and increased use of diesel and renewable diesel fuels, he said, and those alternative fuels “will allow us to make significant environmental gains with our current fleet while evaluating promising but fledgling technology.”

Anderson said Union Pacific has launched a pilot program to test new battery electric switch locomotives, expecting to take possession of 20 by the end of 2024, “at which point we can begin testing in earnest.”

Those switch locomotives will be tested in Nebraska and California — not Utah — because those areas have more extreme temperatures, have heavier rail volume and “hump yards,” or elevated areas within the rail yard.

Anderson said Union Pacific does not expect battery electric technology to be “sufficient or available at scale for operations” until after 2030. In the meantime, it’s “critical” that Union Pacific’s fleet is able to “keep the nation’s supply chain fluid.” If the technology proves to measure up to their hopes, he said Union Pacific is “open to partnering with Utah to bring some of these units to the state as the new technology becomes suitable for broader deployment.”

“We welcome further discussions to explore how we can work together to improve air quality and better understand the air quality impacts of locomotives and the environmental benefits of rail,” Anderson said.

‘Companies need to be held accountable’

Clean air advocates including Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah, spoke in support of the bill, saying she’s been “continually disappointed” in Union Pacific’s switchers and their “inability to come to a voluntary agreement or any agreement with the state to upgrade this equipment.”

“These companies need to be held accountable for the pollution they create, especially when there is technology available to reduce it so significantly,” she said. “They need to step up and do the right thing for the people of Utah.”

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, agreed, noting Mendoza’s comments that mobile sources contribute to about 50% of Salt Lake County’s pollution, and of that about 2% to 3% is “directly attributable” to freight switchers.

“That’s a very evident point source that needs to be addressed,” Owens said. “The need is obvious.”

On the House floor, Handy thanked Schultz for sponsoring the bill, saying his past conversations with Union Pacific — and the news that Nebraska and California, not Utah, would get to test out the new technology — have been “discouraging.”

“Let’s unite together and send a message that we deserve that consideration in the great state of Utah,” Handy urged his fellow representatives before the vote.

Schultz, in an interview with the Deseret News, said he hopes Union Pacific will engage in conversations over the bill as it moves forward. He said he’s open to negotiations.

“For five years, this has been talked about and talked about and talked about, and Union Pacific has put it off and punted and said a lot of things, but (we’ve) yet to see any action,” Schultz said. “We’d love to see any incremental improvement.”

Schulz added Union Pacific continues to not only “not engage, but be obstructionist” by threatening to hold bills — and roadways — “hostage.”

“It’s frustrating,” Schulz said, “and I think it just shows that all they care about is their bottom dollar and their profits.”