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California sues carmakers over greenhouse gases

Ford, GM and Toyota among six automakers charged in groundbreaking suit that contends companies cost state millions because of vehicle emissions.
September 20 2006: 4:13 PM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) -- California sued six of the world's largest automakers over global warming Wednesday, charging that greenhouse gases from their vehicles have caused billions of dollars in damages.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to seek to hold manufacturers liable for the damages caused by their vehicles' emissions, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.

It also comes less than a month after California lawmakers adopted the nation's first global warming law mandating a cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

An automaker trade group called the global warming move a "nuisance suit." Car manufacturers have also held up California state rules to force cuts in tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks with legal action of their own.

The lawsuit names General Motors Corp. (up $0.32 to $31.72, Charts), Ford Motor Co. (up $0.11 to $7.77, Charts), Toyota Motor Corp. (up $0.91 to $107.27, Charts), the Chrysler Motors Corp. U.S. arm of Germany's DaimlerChrysler AG (up $0.61 to $49.90, Charts) and the North American units of Japan's Honda Motor Co. (up $0.40 to $32.95, Charts) and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (up $0.16 to $22.52, Charts).

"[California] just passed a new law to cut global warming emissions by 25 percent and that's a good start and this lawsuit is a good next step," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program.

Lockyer told Reuters he would seek "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars" from the automakers in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for past and ongoing contributions to global warming and asks that the companies be held liable for future monetary damages to California.

It noted that California is spending millions to deal with reduced snowpack, beach erosion, ozone pollution and the impact on endangered animals and fish.

"The injuries have caused the people to suffer billions of dollars in damages, including millions of dollars of funds expended to determine the extent, location and nature of future harm and to prepare for and mitigate those harms, and billions of dollars of current harm to the value of flood control infrastructure and natural resources," it said.

Ford deferred comment to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which called the complaint a "nuisance suit" similar to one a New York court dismissed.

"Automakers will need time to review this legal complaint, however, a similar nuisance suit that was brought by attorneys-general against utilities was dismissed by a federal court in New York," the industry group said in a statement.

Toyota declined to comment as the company evaluates the lawsuit.

The other automakers had no immediate comment. David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit organization that provides public research and forecasts, said it would be tough for the industry to meet demands from some critics immediately.

Adoption of diesel engine emissions technology or gasoline-electric hybrids comes at great cost, and improving gas mileage also likely means smaller lighter vehicles, trade-offs that are not attractive to consumers, he added.

"These are not free technologies, they are very expensive," Cole said. "Most people are price sensitive."

In the complaint, Lockyer charges that vehicle emissions have contributed significantly to global warming and have harmed the resources, infrastructure and environmental health of the most populous state in the United States.

Lockyer - a Democratic candidate for state treasurer in the November election - said the lawsuit states 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."

Carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases have been linked to global warming.

Shares of GM (up $0.31 to $31.71, Charts), Ford (up $0.11 to $7.77, Charts) and Toyota (up $0.90 to $107.26, Charts) were all higher in afternoon trading Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.


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