January 01, 2017

Views from the Chair: A new year and a new era

Seth A. Davis

It’s “out with the old and in with the new” time again. But as we move into 2017, and into the first days of the Trump administration, the future for the environmental, energy, and natural resources area of law is unclear. For the past ten years or more we have lived in a state of deadlock at the federal level, with no legislation emerging from Congress (yes, the Lautenberg Toxic Substances Control Act law is an exception) and with regulations mired in endless litigation. But now comes a president who is at best a skeptic on climate change and who proposes to curtail federal regulatory activity, together with a Congress that seems inclined to give him his way.

Maybe we’ve gone through this before. Following the 1980 election, President Reagan threatened to turn back the clock on environmental regulation. But an assistant administrator of EPA got caught “having lunch with polluters,” the public became enraged, Reagan was forced to bring back Bill Ruckelshaus, and EPA moved forward. Is that going to happen again? That does not appear likely. Mentioning Ruckelshaus’ name brings to mind an age when environmentalism was bipartisan. It was, after all, Richard Nixon who established EPA with an executive order. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed during his administration, with bipartisan support. The last major amendments to the Clean Air Act came under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, energetically supported by EPA Administrator William Reilly, who was plucked from an environmentalist organization. And a recent obituary for Leon Billings, Democratic Senator Ed Muskie’s staff director, described how he and his counterpart from the Republican staff, one Tom Jorling, worked out the finer points of the air and water acts while carpooling in a pickup truck. Such cooperation does not seem likely in today’s polarized climate.

Importantly at this juncture, our Section continues to serve as the premier forum for discussions—at the highest level—of issues impacting environmental, energy, and resources law. The word “forum” is chosen carefully. We strive to have open discussions of key issues—open to all parties and points of view. Our discussions will be even more significant with the transition now taking place in Washington.

So please plan to attend our in-person programs this year to be better informed about the latest developments in environmental, energy, and resources law, in the company of your colleagues from around the country.

Mark your calendar for our 46th Spring Conference to be held in Los Angeles in late March. While all of the new energy and environmental powers in Washington have not yet been named at the time of writing, the conference planning committee is already working on confirming speakers with ties to the new administration.
In addition, during the same week, at the same venue, we will be co-hosting the inaugural Environmental Summit of the Americas, organized by International Bar Association environmental section chair Gene Smary, a former Section chair. At the summit, participants will discuss environmental concerns that have cross-border implications.

And on April 20, 2017, at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University in White Plains, New York, we will be presenting, along with the Pace Environmental Law Review, a program on the sustainability of environmental law. The program will look at the role environmental law will play going forward. Participants will consider how the environment might be protected if statutes and regulations are no longer enforced. And ultimately—what might the future hold for environmental lawyers—in government, law firms, corporations, NGOs?

The questions are more challenging than ever. But we must address them, and we must define principles on which we can all agree, and on which we can base a future of environmental and energy law. I invite all of you to join in the discussions by participating in the Section’s committees, publications, and programs.

Seth A. Davis

Seth Davis is the chair of the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources for 2016–2017. Seth is a partner in Elias Group LLP in Rye, New York. A long-time Section member, he has previously served as publications officer, Council member, and chair of the Environmental Transactions and Brownfields and Site Remediation Committees.