IMAGE: CARS IN LOS ANGELES
Kim D. Johnson  /  AP
California is suing carmakers, stating that vehicles on its roads, like these near  downtown Los Angeles, are contributing to global warming.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/20/2006 4:06:03 PM ET 2006-09-20T20:06:03

California filed suit against the world's largest carmakers on Wednesday, charging that greenhouse gases from their vehicles have cost the state millions of dollars.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California was the first of its kind to seek to hold manufacturers liable for the damages caused by their vehicles' emissions.

Lockyer, a Democrat, said the complaint 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.

Lockyer's office said that “under the law, a ‘public nuisance’ is an unreasonable interference with a public right, or an action that interferes with or causes harm to life, health or property.”

“Global warming is causing significant harm to California’s environment, economy, agriculture and public health. The impacts are already costing millions of dollars and the price tag is increasing,” Lockyer said in a statement. “Vehicle emissions are the single most rapidly growing source of the carbon emissions contributing to global warming, yet the federal government and automakers have refused to act. It is time to hold these companies responsible for their contribution to this crisis.”

Lockyer said he would seek "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars" from the automakers.

Automakers' reaction
The lawsuit names Ford, General Motors, Toyota and the North American units of DaimlerChrysler, Honda and Nissan.

The automakers responded to Lockyer’s lawsuit by issuing a statement saying they already are building cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also cited a similar lawsuit brought against utilities that was dismissed previously by a federal court in New York.

The alliance did not respond to the substance of Lockyer’s lawsuit, saying manufacturers would need time to review the complaint.

Lockyer’s action comes 48 days before the November election. He is termed out of office this year and is running for state treasurer.

“This is the silly season of elections in the fall, and obviously he thinks this will gain him a few marginal votes,” said Sean McAlinden, an economist with the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I don’t think it means anything more than it says. It’s California politics.”

But activists welcomed the move.

"Industries responsible for the pollution that drives global warming should expect more suits like this until we have effective national legislation to stop global warming," David Doniger, a staffer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Earlier lawsuit
Carmakers earlier sued to block a 2005 California law that would require them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles. In that case, automakers argue that California is acting outside its jurisdiction because the only way they can meet the more stringent emission standards is to raise fuel efficiency. Setting fuel-efficiency standards is the exclusive responsibility of the federal government.

California and 11 other states are also involved in a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The Supreme Court is expected to hear that case during its upcoming term.

Last month, the state Legislature passed a landmark bill designed to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from industries. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the measure into law by the end of the month.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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