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Environmental Law: General

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General

A career in environmental law typically has a multi-disciplinary scope, encompassing both science and policy issues as well as the law. Students drawn to this area typically have a longstanding appreciation for the environment and want to be part of the solution for the challenges posed by the increasing strain on the world's natural resources.

Stanford has a comparative advantage over other universities in the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary resources available to students interested in environmental policy and earth sciences. The top scientists and engineers in their disciplines can be found in the university's Schools of Earth Sciences and Engineering. The Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center house very broad research programs and have attracted some of the world's leading thinkers to work toward solutions to the stresses placed upon the [...]

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A career in environmental law typically has a multi-disciplinary scope, encompassing both science and policy issues as well as the law. Students drawn to this area typically have a longstanding appreciation for the environment and want to be part of the solution for the challenges posed by the increasing strain on the world's natural resources.

Stanford has a comparative advantage over other universities in the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary resources available to students interested in environmental policy and earth sciences. The top scientists and engineers in their disciplines can be found in the university's Schools of Earth Sciences and Engineering. The Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center house very broad research programs and have attracted some of the world's leading thinkers to work toward solutions to the stresses placed upon the world's natural resources and to the planet itself by industrial and population growth.

Early environmental legislation, in the 1940s and 1950s, was designed to limit air and water pollution. Regulation in place today covers a broad range of activity, from the protection of endangered species to energy conservation and fuel efficiency, and most recently to efforts to address climate change.

Environmental lawyers benefit from an interest in and an understanding of science. Although a scientific or engineering background is not critical to the practice, environmental lawyers often deal with experts in these areas and it is helpful to have some general background and vocabulary. New methodologies and perspectives are increasingly arising from non-traditional combinations of natural science and engineering with insights derived from law, medicine, economics, the social sciences, foreign policy, and business. Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Program on the Environment and Resources (IPER) provides an opportunity for students interested in environmental problem-solving to obtain a joint graduate degree in some combination of academic disciplines. Or, a student may choose to simply take a selection of courses listed in this guide.

Policy: Students interested in environmental policy or scholarship in the environmental law field have many growing areas of policy and research to choose from, such as the energy markets in the U.S. and overseas, and international collective efforts to manage global warming. Students interested in policy work or scholarship should acquire certain analytical tools in order to be able to engage with those writing in the field of environmental law. Both law school courses and cross-disciplinary courses in the social sciences offer students the opportunity to develop necessary tools and perspectives.

Public Interest: Many environmental lawyers work in public or non-profit agencies, where the mission is to safeguard natural resources or protect humans from exposure to toxic substances. They may work for environmental advocacy or public interest organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) or the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Some non-profit firms engage in advocacy efforts to convince federal and state agencies to adopt sound policies when the agencies make rules and regulations. Environmental lawyers may also represent clients engaged in advocating new legislation. Other lawyers with non-profit firms or private public interest firms provide more direct services, assisting residents and community groups to deal with environmental problems like lead-based paint or poor demolition work. These public interest lawyers may also engage in press and public outreach strategies to educate people and develop public support for environmental initiatives.

Government: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the principal federal agency responsible for environmental policy. The EPA enforces compliance with environmental laws by issuing and revoking permits, and by referring civil or criminal cases of non-compliance to the Department of Justice. Dozens of other federal and state agencies are also responsible for adopting regulations under environmental statutes enacted, respectively, by the U.S. Congress and by state legislatures. Lawyers with the EPA in Washington, D.C. may also work with the Department of Justice to defend or settle litigation against the EPA when the EPA is sued by industry, by environmental groups or by state agencies. They may also spend time responding to congressional inquiries or advising EPA personnel with regard to the adoption or implementation of regulations in accordance with enabling environmental legislation.

Private Sector: Many environmental lawyers work in private law firms, where they assist commercial and industrial firms to comply with environmental laws and regulations that affect business activities as diverse as retail services and manufacturing. Private law firms represent a variety of clients across a broad spectrum of services. In addition to counseling clients regarding compliance with the laws, private lawyers assist clients with obtaining permits for their land use and facilities and obtaining environmental quality reviews. Federal statutes such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act, as well as state and local laws, require proper permits and operating licenses that meet environmental standards. For example, when a new plant or manufacturing facility is constructed, the operating entity needs to obtain air permits, water permits, solid and hazardous waste permits, among other permits and licenses. Businesses and community groups can challenge the issuance of a permit if they believe the regulatory agency has not properly fulfilled its mandate.

Private lawyers also represent clients in state and federal court actions, which can range from enforcement actions brought by governmental lawyers to mass tort claims filed by plaintiff groups alleging harm to public health or to the environment. They may also file suit on behalf of clients against other potentially responsible entities or pursue their clients’ insurance carriers for coverage of environmental costs. Environmental lawyers may also advise their clients on how to structure their real estate deals to minimize liability. Buyers and sellers typically negotiate each party’s responsibility for potential environmental liabilities related to the property, for example, where old industrial sites are converted to lighter industrial processes or office facilities. A growing area of private practice is transactional due diligence for domestic and multinational acquisitions and divestitures. For example, environmental due diligence may include an audit or review of the target company’s compliance with environmental laws and regulations.

In the aftermath of government investigation or enforcement actions, private firm lawyers assist their clients in taking corrective actions. They may also assist their clients with ongoing compliance measures like the adoption of management or monitoring systems to eliminate pollutants.

 
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