SACRAMENTO — The state of California sued the country's largest automobile manufacturers Wednesday, seeking billions of dollars for environmental damage caused by tailpipe emissions.
It was the state's latest effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. The lawsuit drew praise and criticism for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who filed it on behalf of the state.
"We think that today's decision is more about politics than global warming," said Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "It seems like a very political decision on the part of the attorney general." Automakers said the complaint had no legal merit.
Environmentalists praised Lockyer for going after cars, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution. It's "another sign that we've entered a new era in tackling global warming," said Jason Barbose of Environment California, an activist group.
There was also guarded praise from a member of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cabinet. "We applaud any effort to defend California's right to clean our air," California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams said.
The federal lawsuit contends that the greenhouses gases, mostly carbon dioxide, emitted from cars is a public nuisance and that automakers should pay for damages to the state's environment and public works.
"Basically, what we are saying is it's old-fashioned economics. You should pay for the damage you cause," Lockyer said in an interview. He noted that "the automobile industry manufactures products that are the largest growing source of carbon emission in the state and country."
Lockyer, whose term ends in December, is running for state treasurer in November as a Democrat.
The complaint seeks unspecified damages of potentially billions of dollars for current and future damage to the state's water supplies, coastline, forests, wildlife and public health.
If successful, Lockyer said, the suit could generate funds to protect the Sierra snowpack and repair the canals and reservoirs that bring water to Los Angeles from Northern California.
It could also be used to bolster flood control projects and repair coastal erosion, he added.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland, names General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor North America Inc., Ford Motor Co., Honda North America Inc. Chrysler Group and Nissan North America Inc. as defendants.
In filing a nuisance lawsuit, the state is taking a somewhat new approach. It is not contending the automakers have broken any environmental laws, only that their conduct has resulted in severe damage for which they should pay.
Legal experts had mixed views about the lawsuit's viability. Sean Hecht, a UCLA environmental law expert, called the approach "not unreasonable" under precedents that go back to English common law.
"It's novel, but based on standard nuisance law, they certainly have a shot at convincing a judge that the burdens this industry imposes on society are too great," Hecht said.
But USC tort law expert Greg Keating wondered whether Lockyer was trying to advance an untenable argument that automakers collectively are creating a nuisance by selling cars that emit carbon dioxide. "I doubt it has legs," he said.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said, "Using nuisance suits to address global warming would involve the courts in deciding political questions beyond their jurisdiction. This opens the door to lawsuits targeting any activity that uses fossil fuel for energy." The alliance represents the Big Three U.S. automakers and Toyota.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of efforts by Schwarzenegger, Lockyer, other elected officials and the Legislature to fight climate change by curbing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Last month the governor and Democratic leaders of the Legislature negotiated a deal that produced AB 32, a pioneering bill that sought to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020.
The bill, which Schwarzenegger has pledged to sign this month, would make California the first state to cap the amount of carbon dioxide released by refineries, power plants and other heavy industries.
The measure also relies on a 2002 California law that limits car tailpipe emissions to meet about a third of its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal.
Automakers are suing the state, contending that it cannot legally enforce the law requiring that they install controls on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from cars sold in California.
Car companies argue that only the federal government has the authority to pass a law regulating emissions from cars.
The alliance's Bergquist stressed that newer cars are "99% cleaner than a generation ago" and that most models are available with fuel-efficient technology.