Big Auto could be the new Big Tobacco

Should state and federal governments, trial lawyers and insurance companies across the country band together and sue the auto industry just as they sued tobacco companies more than a decade ago as a way of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare costs from a product (in this case, petroleum) they claim is a nuisance?

There is a movement afoot — slow and steady — leading in that very direction. Sue Big Auto for the costs incurred in providing medical care to people with birth defects, asthma, emphysema and cancer.

Big Auto is to blame, and Big Auto owes us. That, in essence, is the claim of an obscure man you've probably never heard of who is running for president of the United States. His name is Terry Tamminen, and before you blow him off (preferably through tailpipe emissions out of your massive Hummer), know that he is a close friend and adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is the former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. Oh yes, and he has written a book: Lives Per Gallon. (I'd make a snarky comment about people who run for president to sell their books, but that criticism cuts across both parties, doesn't it?)

A reporter gave me a copy of Tamminen's book before it hit the shelves, to spare me the agony of handing over my capitalistic gains to a man like Tamminen whose political views are probably more in line with Al Gore than Arnold Schwarzenegger. I've since lost the book, but Amazon.com provides a handy summary that gets to the heart of Tamminen's agenda:

"The infamous 'pain at the pump' runs much deeper than our wallets, argues Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and current Special Assistant to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Petroleum may power our cars and heat our homes, but it also contributes to birth defects and disorders like asthma and emphysema, not to mention cancer. In Lives Per Gallon, Tamminen takes a hard look at these and other health, environmental, and national security costs hidden in every barrel of oil.

"While the petroleum industry is raking in huge profits, Tamminen shows, it is studiously avoiding measures that would lessen the hazards of its products. Using the successful lawsuits by state governments against big tobacco as a model, the author sets forth a bold strategy to hold oil and auto companies accountable and force industry reform."

Just last year, California's termed-out attorney general filed a lawsuit against six American and Japanese auto makers, claiming their tailpipe emissions cause global warming, which is costing the state billions of dollars. The new AG, Jerry Brown (that's Governor Moonbeam to those of you over the age of 40), continues to pursue the suit on behalf of the Golden State. The San Francisco Chronicle reports, "The suit seeks unspecified damages for the harm to state lands, waters and the air, as well as the state's costs in planning and prevention."

Just yesterday, members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were in Sacramento to hear testimony as to whether or not "extraordinary and compelling conditions" exist in California to warrant the state enacting stricter greenhouse gas emissions than allowed under federal law.

As reported by KQED's Capital Notes, "State officials requested the waiver of the federal law some 16 months ago, arguing that California's specific climate change issues need extra attention; 11 other states are now pursuing similar regulations."

The waivers are merely a means to an end — that end being a massive lawsuit to determine how many "lives per gallon."

This issue should be raised with the presidential candidates. In 1999 Bill Clinton caught the tobacco industry off guard when he joined the states in suing for tobacco-related medical expenses. Does anyone doubt a trial lawyer like John Edwards or Bill Clinton's co-president, Hillary, would join California and other states in suing the auto industry for the costs of global warming and pollution?

I'm most curious to know how the Democrats balance the interests of environmentalists with those of the Union of Auto Workers — both important constituencies.