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Law Firms Warm Up to Climate Issues

  Law Firm News  -   POSTED: 2007/12/10 18:09

Detroit-based Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone P.L.C. has created an inter-disciplinary practice group to address climate change and global warming issues for its business clients, becoming one of a growing number of local law firms that are doing so.

Mark Bennett, who joined Miller Canfield as senior counsel in August, leads a team of 13 lawyers from practices in public finance, real estate, environmental, government affairs and commercial lending.

Like many law firms, Miller Canfield sees this as an opportunity to offer clients service that goes beyond strict legal work into comprehensive advice on complex issues, Bennett said.

Climate change is a critical policy area affecting not only business and industry but consumers, government and regulatory agencies, so it offers opportunities for law firms — as well as communities and companies — to make money while addressing serious problems, Bennett said.

"So often in law, we've focused on mitigating risks," Bennett said, "but in the climate change area, we're emphasizing government incentives and operating efficiencies that can create economic return on investments in energy conservation."

Other major Detroit law firms agree that lawyers need to address a changing landscape in these practice areas, and most are doing so.

"Been there, done that," said Alan S. Schwartz, CEO and chairman of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P. "That is, we've had such a group for a while."

An Investment Incentives and Tax Savings practice was established in 2004, chaired by Steven Nadeau, and Honigman recently created an alternative energy group headed by Sandy Ring. Each group has 15 lawyers.

Both practice groups work with companies whose businesses involve regulating, patenting and marketing new energy sources as well as ways to take advantage of tax breaks and federal grants while they address environmental concerns, Nadeau said.

Larry McLaughlin, who heads Honigman's real estate practice, said his firm regularly advises clients on developments such as incentives for green real estate practices.

At Detroit-based Butzel Long, Beth Gotthelf, who heads the environmental practice, said, "Environmental law practice isn't the old environmental law it used to be, focusing on pollution, Super Sites and wetlands.

"We're doing energy, climate change and global warming issues, with ethanol plants and R&Ds on alternative fuel. And on new construction, it's 'What can we do to make buildings more energy efficient and what kind of credits are there if we make them more green?' " she said.

With lawyers needed for contracts, financial deals and regulatory compliance, it makes sense for law firms to offer a total package on such issues, Gotthelf said. "We are seeing much more clearly that environmental practice touches all aspects of life and is in every discipline."

Understanding and using tax incentives is one way to assist businesses with climate change issues, Bennett said. But when the U.S. implements a carbon-regulatory scheme, it will have both economic and technological impacts beyond legal and regulatory compliance, he said.

The European Union's use for several years of climate change regulations gives a perspective on how U.S. businesses can productively incorporate such issues into commercial transactions.

For instance, assigning a price to a ton of emitted carbon dioxide impacts the value of real estate because carbon emissions caused by electricity consumption become an occupancy cost for tenant or landlord that can be built into a lease, he said. "We can address this additional risk or reward in a lease for both landlord and tenant clients," he said.    

Lawyer Michael Gerrard of New York city-based Arnold & Porter L.L.P. said that municipalities are under a lot of political pressure, as sources of emission, as regulators and as buyers or sellers of credits.

He predicts that growth in climate change activity will be spurred, "if and when Congress adopts mandatory regulatory laws, which I expect to happen in 2009 and 2010 ... whether the next president is a Democrat or Republican."

Earlier this year, President Bush announced the administration's new stance on global climate change, and some segments of the public and Congress are pushing for more action.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Nov. 14 created a Michigan Climate Action Council to develop plans to reduce the state's energy use by 10 percent by the end of 2008 and to reduce electricity purchases by 20 percent by 2015. She also called for growth in the alternative energy industry and for the state to establish Renewable Portfolio Standards, all areas the Miller Canfield team addresses.

The Miller Canfield climate change team also will work with business, industry and government clients on sustainable development including LEED certification. LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system established by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council to set standards for environmentally sustainable construction.

Also on the team's agenda, Bennett said, is: waste-to-energy project certification; carbon emission reduction credits; voluntary emission reductions transactions on the Chicago Climate Exchange and over-the-counter markets; public nuisance litigation alternative energy projects; and bio-refinery regulations, among other climate issues.

Team lawyers in metro Detroit, along with Bennett, are Amanda Van Dusen, Mike McGee, Ronald Hodess, Anna Maiuri, Duncan Ogilvie and Jean-Vierre Adams.

Based in Lansing are William Danhof, Harvey Messing, James Lancaster and Bree Popp Woodruff .

Trent Taylor is in Grand Rapids and Paul Durbin is in Chicago.

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