A California court settlement should encourage the oil and gas industry to broaden its approach to environmental politics.

A California court settlement should encourage the oil and gas industry to broaden its approach to environmental politics.

The case didn't even involve oil companies. The defendants were three of southern California's largest supermarket chains.

A lawsuit filed 2 years ago by environmental groups and the state attorney general accused the food suppliers of exposing people who live near their distribution centers to cancer risks from diesel exhausts.

The suit claimed truck traffic at the distribution centers in five communities violated California's antitoxics law, Proposition 65. The state Air Resources Board has declared diesel exhaust a cancer-causing substance because it contains fine particles.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the supermarket chains-Ralphs, Safeway/Vons, and Albertsons/Lucky Stores-agreed to replace 150 of their diesel trucks with rigs using alternative fuel. The chains also agreed to limit truck idling time to 3 min and to mail warnings of cancer risks to 25,000 residents of neighborhoods near the distribution centers.

The Times said environmental groups had compiled lists of other companies with distribution centers they said raised cancer risks in surrounding communities.

The food companies did not concede that operation of their distribution centers significantly elevated the risk of cancer. The Times pointed out that "cancer risk estimates from diesel exhaust are highly controversial."

The grocery chains in the settlement agreed to buy trucks with engines that burn a mixture of 85% natural gas and 15% diesel. Vons has purchased 30 dual-fuel trucks and will buy 30 more of them. Ralphs and Albertsons will each buy 25 dual-fuel rigs.

The companies also will convert about 40 truck cabs used exclusively at the distribution centers to enable them to burn natural gas or propane.

The dual-fuel road vehicles cost $25,000 apiece more than the diesel trucks they replace, according to the Times. State grants and tax breaks cover most of the cost differential for the companies.

The environmentalist agenda is clear.

"Our hope is this is a beginning of a long commitment to clean-fuel trucks," said Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We want all companies to get off their diesel diet and switch to clean-fuel trucks."

So an environmentally aggressive state's has rushed to embrace a suspicion that fine particles elevate cancer risks and has officially characterized diesel fuel as a toxic substance. And the hasty judgment has created an antidiesel agenda for NRDC, which naturally ignores advances in engine and fuel technology able to reduce emissions of particles.

To the extent this crusade of lawsuits succeeds, the costs of food, medicine, and anything else distributed by truck-or taxes if environmental subsidies hide the effects-will rise in California. Hardest hurt by the cost phenomenon-which is much more certain than the cancer peril around distribution centers-will be the poor people who tend to live in industrial areas and who are supposed to benefit from this so-called environmental justice.

Extremists thus march forward with their antipetroleum campaign. Oil and gas companies need to do a better job of explaining how much they hurt people in the name of health.

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