The U.S. railroad industry has spent many years building up its image as a sustainability leader. However, the veneer of “green” hides an aggressive history of lobbying against climate action. Now the wall of denial appears to have grown a massive crack. The leading rail company CSX has just agreed to disclose its lobbying activities as an important step towards a more consistent and meaningful sustainability policy.
U.S. railroads are green on the outside…
Railroads have a built-in advantage on climate action, due to the fuel efficiency of rail transport.
“Trains can move a ton of freight more than 450 miles on a single gallon of fuel,” CSX notes, adding that “Efficient use of fuel means less greenhouse gases or carbon emissions for our planet.”
Still, there is always room for improvement. CSX set a relatively modest emissions reduction goal in 2012, and the company has ramped up its goal considerably since then. Just last year, CSX became the first rail company in North America to gain approval from the global Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi).
“CSX will reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 37.3 percent between 2014 and 2030,” CSX stated. “The company expects future transformational technology to facilitate this next level of reductions and is extensively investing in technologies and operational practices that drive maximum achievable efficiencies.”
…not so much on the inside
Unfortunately, the impact of CSX’s commitment to climate action begins to crumble in the context of its trade group ties, including the Association of American Railroads.
In 2019, The Atlantic reporter Robinson Meyer detailed the findings of two recent studies on the lobbying activities of the Association of American Railroads. He describes a decades-long trail of anti-science activities rivaling that of ExxonMobil in its scope and impact.
“The four largest American freight railroads - BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and CSX - have sat at the center of the climate-denial movement nearly since it began,” Meyer wrote. “These four companies have joined or funded groups that attacked individual scientists, cast doubt on scientific consensus, and rejected reports from major scientific institutions, including the United Nations–led Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”
Follow the money
The record of climate science denial clashes with the fuel efficiency profile of railroads, but it is fully consistent with the railroad industry’s reliance on the coal industry.
“Nearly 70 percent of American coal is shipped by rail, often along ‘dedicated’ lines that can ‘operate around the clock, the rail association says on its website,” Meyer wrote. “The largest class of railroads made a combined $10.7 billion, or 14 percent of their revenue, hauling coal last year.”
CSX is a case in point. As described on its own website, CSX is “the largest coal transporter east of the Mississippi River.”
The company also outlines its role in the global coal industry, explaining that it “provides service from the largest number of active coal origins, seamlessly interchanges with Western railroads and short lines, and provides access to multiple Eastern seaports.”
“Our specialized unit train service creates an efficient pipeline that allows us to move more than 130 - 165 million tons of coal products per year,” CSX states, listing coke and petroleum coke among the coal-related products it carries.
Making a real commitment to climate action
Apparently, CSX has begun to see the writing on the wall. Globally and here in the U.S., coal is losing its once-mighty grip on the power generation sector due to the advent of low-cost natural gas and renewable energy.
Steel manufacturers and other energy-intensive industries are also beginning to ease their dependence on coal, with an assist from new green hydrogen technology. In addition, new plastic recycling technology and bio-based alternatives are beginning to replace coal, petroleum and natural gas in the chemicals industry.
The election of President Joe Biden on an aggressive decarbonization platform may have also sparked CSX into action. Earlier this week, the sustainable investment firm Green Century Capital Management announced that it has withdrawn a shareholder resolution with CSX, following a new transparency pledge by the company.
The resolution was spearheaded by the Unitarian Universalist Association and supported by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
“Green Century has withdrawn a shareholder resolution with CSX Corporation (CSX) after it agreed to report on any of its lobbying activities, and those of its trade associations, that contradict the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement,” the firm announced, while calling out the Association of American Railroads by name.
“These new commitments signal that the company is ready to address the material risks posed by the climate crisis and end its support for lobbying that does not align with its climate destination,” Green Century President Leslie Samuelrich emphasized.
A new direction for CSX and its competitors
The pledge calls for CSX to review its lobbying practices and those of its trade associations alongside its climate policies, and to report on any discrepancies.
Regardless of its past practice, those trade associations may already be pivoting to adopt new business models that offset the loss of coal freight and other forms of fossil energy.
The American Association of Railroads, for one, appears eager to cannibalize the trucking industry for new opportunities to make up for the loss of coal traffic.
Last summer, the trade group issued a white paper that “contextualizes how and why freight rail provides a solution that helps decrease the country’s carbon emissions and reduces transportation’s overall environmental impact.”
The analysis looked at two scenarios for replacing long haul truck transport of at least 750 miles with rail transport. Under a 25 percent replacement scenario, the analysis finds a fuel savings of 1.2 billion gallons, leading to a reduction of approximately 13.1 million tons in greenhouse gasses.
That savings could diminish as the long haul trucking industry electrifies. However, the analysis does suggest that the coal industry is beginning to lose a key ally as CSX, and other railroad stakeholders, adapt to a more sustainable future.
Image credit: Benjamin Wagner/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.