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Brown seeks carmaker agreement on emissions

The attorney general takes a conciliatory tone but says he'll press a suit if a deal is not reached.

February 02, 2007|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In his first major action as California attorney general, Jerry Brown signaled to the nation's Big Six automakers Thursday that he would like to reach a compromise in a high-stakes legal battle over how to curb global warming.

But Brown left no doubt that he would press a lawsuit by the state against the companies if they failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from car tailpipes.

"I'm very serious about the lawsuit, but more so about getting Congress to act and getting auto manufacturing companies to take real leadership in getting a solution," Brown said in an interview.

The dispute arose in September when then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sued the automakers. He accused them of creating a public nuisance by contributing to global warming that could melt mountain snowpacks, endanger forests and damage agriculture. The suit seeks billions of dollars in damages.

Critics called the lawsuit a frivolous election-year stunt. But Brown on Thursday filed papers in U.S. District Court in Oakland to keep it alive. At the same time, he wrote automakers asking for meetings with chief executives to discuss a possible settlement.

Brown's desire for accommodation contrasts with a reputation as an unpredictable iconoclast earned while serving as a Democratic governor from 1975 to 1982.

"He was very eclectic. He was not somebody who tried to make deals," said Tony Quinn, a veteran political analyst in Sacramento. "This may be a new Jerry Brown because he was not an accommodating person when he was governor."

The automakers' attorney, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., said he appreciated the conciliatory tone of the attorney general's letter. Nevertheless, he insisted that the state's legal argument lacked merit.

The lawsuit names as defendants General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor North America Inc., Ford Motor Co., American Honda Motor Co., Chrysler Group and Nissan North America Inc.

Brown said he had already had one informal conversation with a top executive at one auto company. He declined to name either the executive or the firm, but he stressed that "at the end of the day, we're looking to control global warming, not just employing lawyers."

Brown said the proposed talks would deal not only with the attorney general's complaint but also a separate December 2004 lawsuit by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The alliance is trying to set aside a 2002 California law requiring automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's all one piece," Brown said.

He said he would rather talk -- in both Sacramento and Washington -- than fight in the courts, even though the California lawsuit was based on "sound legal doctrine."

In his letter, he said he was "struck by the need for California and the automakers to work together to address the profound environmental challenges posed by global warming."

The tailpipe emissions limit is an essential component of last year's California Global Warming law. The measure signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020.

The case has yet to come to trial. A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno last month postponed action on the alliance suit pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a related case.

Although the governor is committed to defending the 2002 law against the automakers' challenge, his administration appears less enthusiastic about pursuing the attorney general's counterclaims against the car companies.

"We need to stop suing each other and move on to solutions," read the one-sentence comment from California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams in response to Brown's letter.

The coauthor of the landmark global warming law, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), said he was eager to see the right kind of out-of-court settlement in both lawsuits. "If the attorney general can find common ground, more power to him," the speaker said.

The automakers had little specific to say about Brown's offer to negotiate. Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Washington-based automakers alliance, declined to comment on either of the two lawsuits or respond directly to the attorney general's announcement. The alliance represents all of the defendants in the California suit except Honda and Nissan.

General Motors spokesman Dave Barthmuss said his company had "an open mind" about talking with Brown and working with the state to develop alternative vehicles and fuels that emit less greenhouse gas.

Automakers said they were committed to fighting global warming on the national and international fronts but didn't believe that problems could be dealt with adequately on the state level. Putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions is linked to setting fuel efficiency standards, which is a federal responsibility, they argue.

Environmentalists said they were pleased that Brown was taking a carrot-and-stick approach with the auto companies on global warming. "I'm glad that he is keeping the suit going because it is substantive and one the attorney general should not dismiss," said Bill Magavern, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club in Sacramento.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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