Calif. Sues Six Automakers Over Global Warming

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

California filed a lawsuit against the six largest automakers operating in the United States, alleging car and truck emissions are causing global warming, injuring the state's environment and economy and endangering public health.

The complaint, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for Northern California, is the latest escalation in a clash between states and the U.S. auto industry over global warming. The California complaint alleges that under federal and state common law the automakers have created a public nuisance by producing millions of vehicles that collectively emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide.

The lawsuit targets U.S. operations of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler AG, Toyota Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Most of the automakers declined to comment, saying they were still reviewing the complaint. In a statement, Honda said "the real issue regarding climate change is how the United States as a nation, not the individual states, is going to address the proliferation of greenhouse gases."

Honda repeated its position that the federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, should raise fuel economy standards to address greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. Most automakers have strongly opposed attempts to raise fuel economy standards.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific claim for damages. The complaint says the state is spending millions of dollars on planning, monitoring and making infrastructure changes to address "a large spectrum of current and anticipated impacts." The complaint blames global warming for raising sea levels along the state's coastline, increasing ozone pollution in big cities, increasing the threat of wildfires and reducing the amount of fresh water flowing from mountain snow packs.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer pegged current damages at "tens of millions of dollars." He said the amount could grow as the legal battle continues.

"Money is being spent in our regulatory system preparing for small disruptions in the water supply due to the smaller snow pack, saltwater intrusion of the water supply, beach erosion," Lockyer said in an interview yesterday. "There is a lot of spending that is already ongoing that we are claiming. The point is taxpayers shouldn't pay for those damages, the industry should."

The complaint comes as Congress is deadlocked on how to curb global warming. California is the country's largest single auto market and in many ways has set the nation's agenda on vehicle emissions regulations for the past three decades.

Lockyer said the lawsuit was the first of its kind trying to hold auto manufacturers liable for the damages caused by the greenhouse gases their products emit. He said that vehicle emissions in California account for 30 percent of carbon dioxide in the air, while nationally the figure is 20 percent.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group in Washington, said lawsuits like California's have failed in the past. The lobbying group said the suits draw courts into deciding political questions.

"We've made no secret of our belief that any attempt to regulate carbon dioxide is an attempt to regulate fuel economy, and that is something that is reserved for the federal government," said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the group.

Still, both sides have sought to draw the courts into the battle. The auto industry has sued the state of California in U.S. District Court in Fresno to block implementation of a greenhouse-gas emissions law. This fall the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency which addresses whether the federal government must regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The case could have broad implications for utilities, automakers and other industries.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company