Environmental law got hotter than usual this summer

On July 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued highly anticipated regulations, now called the Transport Rule, in its effort to limit air pollution and replace a controversial cap-and-trade provision for power plants. This new proposal followed other recent attempts by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas and lead emissions, stirring up a legal practice area that had been relatively tame in the last decade.  

“Any change to limit or regulate GHG emissions has the potential to dramatically impact the legal practice,” said Amber MacIver, an associate at Baker Botts. “For example, it could create a demand for lawyers to assist in compliance with permitting and reporting requirements for GHG emissions, depending on how the emissions are ultimately regulated.”

The week before, the energy department committed a $24 million budget to researching algae fuels, renewing talks about alternative energy solutions that could keep energy producers (and their lawyers) busy. Around the same time, a federal judge in Louisiana overturned President Barack Obama’s six-month ban on deepwater drilling, prompting litigation and spurring reactions from environmental groups (and their lawyers).

Add to this something about an ongoing, unstoppable oil spill gushing thousands and thousands of barrels into the Gulf of Mexico each day and causing legal problems of variant degrees…?

Needless to say, there are enough goings-on to sustain environmental law practitioners on both sides of the bar.

On an international level, the pending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 and disappointment surrounding last year’s Copenhagen conference has also rekindled public attention on climate change. While the United States has not ratified the Protocol, some environmental lawyers believe global pressures to reduce climate-changing emissions will nonetheless change how businesses will operate here at home. One attorney, who was asked by his firm to remain anonymous, even predicts mass tort claims if pending lawsuits ever succeed in linking emissions directly to natural disasters. 

It all means a steady demand for environmental lawyers to help businesses navigate through their options for operating. 

“Environmental law attorneys are involved in every stage of a business’s life cycle,” MacIver said.  “As a new attorney, there is a lot of potential to become an expert in a niche area of this practice. This is a great field to pursue with amazing opportunities.”

Generally speaking, environmental law practice is divided into three areas: (1) typical litigation such as tort liability cases; (2) administrative practice and (3) transactional practice. Many practitioners actually focus on the second two areas, even though the first area gets the most press. According to MacIver, an environmental lawyer in an administrative practice, for example, may work with a company that wants to build a new plant to obtain the necessary permits and authorizations prior to constructing the new plant. If a permit application is challenged, the lawyer can help the company prove to the regulatory agency that plans meet requirements in applicable laws and regulations. This might include representation at administrative hearings. Lawyers with a transactional practice, says MacIver, may advise companies during their purchase of real estate, identifying and weighing the risks of any existing environmental liability associated with that real estate. 

“You have to be very willing to learn scientific terms and not be afraid to talk to technical experts,” MacIver said. “You also have to acquire and maintain a broad range of knowledge, and you have to be familiar with other practice areas. There is always something new to learn, and it can be very fast paced. I would encourage students to try an internship or clinic related to environmental law to get a better understanding of the practice.”

While some attorneys hesitate to categorize environmental law as an explosive growth area, all agreed the environmental law job market isn’t expecting to freeze up any time soon.

By Julie Chen Allen for The National Jurist