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One Vt. sugar maker takes fight to U.S. court

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/03/11 05:12

Berndt, 56, owns the Maverick Farm in Sharon, a 16,000-tree property that's one of the largest maple producers in the state. He's planning on sugaring another 20 years before passing the property on to his children or a conservation group. But warmer winters are threatening to cut the tapping season over the next several decades and, with the migration of Southern tree species, crowd out maples over the next century.

What to do? Berndt, a member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, heard about the environmental groups' lawsuit against two U.S. government agencies - the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. - for investing $32 billion in taxpayer money in overseas subsidies to such energy companies as Exxon Mobil Corp., General Electric Co., Halliburton and the now-defunct Enron.

According to the lawsuit, the two federal agencies should have followed the National Environmental Policy Act and reviewed the projected impacts of the resulting oilfields, pipelines and coal-fired power plants.

Had the government done so, it would have realized that the greenhouse-gas emissions from the subsidized fossil-fuel projects equal one-third of the nation's yearly output and almost 10 percent of the world's total, the lawsuit says.

Because scientists blame such gases for global warming, the review would have required the agencies to consider investing in alternatives such as renewable energy and efficiency projects.

Berndt supports such efforts. And so he and his wife, Anne, decided to join several other citizens and cities including Boulder, Colo., and Oakland, Calif., as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"We're trying to stimulate some change in policy," he says. "The United States needs to be a leader in the world to bring solutions to climate change."

Berndt isn't the only Vermonter involved in the lawsuit. The Burlington law firm of Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders is representing all the plaintiffs.

"What we're asking for isn't novel," lawyer Ronald Shems says. "We're hoping federal agencies start complying with federal laws."

And stop fueling global warming, Berndt adds.

"If my wife and I have no maple trees, we have no farm income, and the aesthetic value of the land will also be devastated," he says in court papers. "If climate change has the predicted impacts, we should start culling trees now as the timber market will become saturated rather quickly once maples start disappearing in large numbers. However, like many people, we are in denial because it is too depressing to consider the loss."

Lawyers argued the case in U.S. District Court in San Francisco last April. The hearing came after a judge rejected the government's claims that the case should be dismissed because the agencies hadn't taken any action subjecting them to judicial review and were exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act.

"We're just waiting for a decision," Shems says. "It can take a few weeks to approximately a year."

The government has declined to comment until a ruling is reached. Berndt, for his part, is hopeful, although he doesn't know how much time the maple industry has left.

"There are more people who are starting to get concerned," he says. "We know if we continue along the course we're on, ultimately at some point all the sugar makers will be out of business."


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