June 05, 2020

SEER Blogposts

Paper lanterns

Paper lanterns

COVID-19: Virtual Reunions, Ovid, and Other Musings

Amy L. Edwards, immediate past chair,  ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER)

I just attended my first virtual college reunion, and despite my initial misgivings, it was amazing. But why might you, our SEER members, care? It relates to our mutual interest in creating and sustaining community, connections, traditions, and leadership.

Over the three-day reunion weekend, my college recreated many of the traditions we would have experienced “in person,” ranging from the recorded commencement address (Nancy Pelosi), illumination night (a long-standing tradition where Japanese lanterns are hung all around campus at night), the alumni parade (photos from past parades by class), to several Zoom socials (Zocials). There were even Zoom talks by two of my well-known classmates. One was given by a Democratic pollster who shared what her polling shows about the upcoming 2020 elections. The other was by an author who won the Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction for her first novel, published in 2016. She spoke about why she resumed creative writing after 30 years of private practice as a psychotherapist.

Again, how does this relate to SEER? Quoting from Ovid, my author classmate explained when speaking about resuming creative writing, “sing your song now, you cannot take it with you when you go.” The onset of sheltering in place has forced me to think about my song – to slow down, step back, and take a look at the bigger picture. In my musings, I realized that many of the lessons that we are currently learning from the COVID-19 crisis can be applied to the global climate crisis.

Translating this thought into our mission within SEER, if we want to have an impact on the world—whether it be on climate change or any other environmental issue—now is the time to have our voices heard. Many of us now have more time to focus on these important issues and the opportunity to take a leadership position. SEER offers us many ways to do so. It’s easy. Just ask anyone who is currently in leadership. SEER’s leadership is always looking for more volunteers (especially at the committee level) to spearhead efforts focusing on the issues most important to SEER and the greater community.

Finally, I want to reiterate the importance of community and connection. Since we cannot meet in person, at least for the foreseeable future, it is more important than ever to form our own communities and to create opportunities to connect. We were able to do so at my virtual college reunion through our Zocials. Sure, it wasn’t the same thing as a local happy hour or a “SEER Dine Around” dinner at our Fall Conference. But SEER is very focused on maintaining community during these trying times and is working on several events—watch for details coming soon. 

West Palm Beach

West Palm Beach

Oh, the places I’ve been and the friends I’ve made...

Michelle Diffenderfer, vice chair, ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) | Posted May 22, 2020

As I sit on a sunny morning in West Palm Beach to write my blog post, I’m thinking about the reasons why I love our Section and how I came to know so many of you. I’m also giving thanks for the experiences we have enjoyed together and all the beautiful places we have been.

I joined the ABA when I was a law student at the University of Miami School of Law. I didn’t really know what the ABA was, just that it was free to law students and you joined. What could I lose, and who knew I would gain so much? I went to law school to become an environmental lawyer, so it made sense to join the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources. (Back then it was known as SONREEL—Section of Natural Resources, Energy, and Environmental Law.) The Section provided our law school with its first meaningful environmental speaker, an EPA lawyer, Roosevelt Childress, who described working for the agency in Atlanta and our state’s water quality issues. This talk cemented my decision—I was sold on environmental law. Fast forward a few years, and there I was, working with Mr. Childress on behalf of a client; such is the connected world of an environmental attorney!

My next encounter with the Section was as a young lawyer at our Section’s Region 4 Conference in Atlanta where everyone who was anyone in our region participated in candid discussions about the environmental issues our states faced. It was a glorious experience to be surrounded by people speaking my language, sharing different viewpoints, and engaging in focused discussions about the things that concerned me and my clients.

And then in October 2002, I stepped into my first Section Fall Conference, that year located in Portland, Oregon. My friend Dana Bivins Brown invited me and made me feel welcome—introducing me to everyone she knew there including such illustrious peeps as Karen Mignone, Bill Penny, John Milner, Sheila Hollis, Lee DeHihns, Larry Caster, and Sara Beth Watson. I was five months pregnant with our first child, Hope, and came back from that conference as a committee vice chair. It was an incredible opportunity for a young environmental attorney—the energy, the knowledge, the new friendships, our journey to Mount Hood. That was the start of my love affair with the Section. I kept coming back for more; more knowledge, more friendships, more experiences. I don’t think I have turned down a single Section request since. I’ve always said yes to a chance to face new challenges, meet incredible people, and learn more!

That first Fall Conference in Portland was 17 years ago and I really haven’t looked back. I haven’t had to, there was always another Section adventure waiting for me, always something to look forward to. Sitting here at home in lockdown for the past 10 weeks I have been looking back, smiling as I remember the fun I have had traveling to Section meetings throughout the country, and sometimes beyond, discussing everything under the sun, staying up late, and making friends. Along the way, I received a bonus education on good wine and meeting people from all over the world, learning about challenges in other states and countries and about other people’s energy, environmental, and resource practices.

As we cope with the new reality of social isolation, I am heartened to see your faces, hear your voices, and be introduced to your homes through the magic of Zoom meetings. I know we will make it through this pandemic, but I can hardly wait to be back at in-person meetings, to give and get hugs, to chat with old friends, make new ones, and bring in new members who will be future friends. This Section has given me a beautiful window into America and its absolute wonderfulness through of each of you. Thank you, Michelle.

2019 Section Award Recipients

2019 Section Award Recipients

An Opportunity for Some Good News: SEER’s Annual Awards Nominations

Sean Dixon is the Section's Awards Committee Chair and a former SEER membership officer. | Posted May 22, 2020

Each year, ABA SEER celebrates lawyers, law students, and organizations that have made significant accomplishments or demonstrated exceptional leadership in the field of environmental, energy, and resources law. View awards here.

While the COVID-19 has disrupted the lives (and livelihoods) of most of our SEER colleagues, SEER is thankful to still be in a position to recognize distinguished lawyers and organizations and their notable contributions as well as exemplary programming. 

SEER presents annual awards in seven categories: 

  • Diversity and Justice–honoring accomplishments and leadership in environmental justice, supporting diversity, and promoting access to the rule of law.    
  • Lifetime Achievement–celebrating the long-term leaders in our field of law, this award is one of SEER’s newest categories.
  • Law Student Program of the Year–given only to law students and their organizations, this award recognizes the best student-organized educational program or public service project of the 2019–2020 academic year. 
  • State and Local Bar Program of the Year–in recognition of the importance of ABA SEER’s state and local bar partners, this award goes to the best CLE program or public service project held in late 2019 or 2020.
  • Distinguished Achievement–SEER’s oldest award, honors those lawyers who have contributed significant leadership in improving the substance, process, or understanding of environmental protection and sustainable development.
  • Stewardship–highlighting legal excellence or significant accomplishments by organizations, groups, or individuals working in in environmental, energy, resources, or sustainable development stewardship.
  • Government Attorney of the Year–awarded for sustained career-long achievement, honors the federal, state, tribal, or local government attorneys who have consistently achieved distinction in the field of environmental, energy, and resources law.

While we—collectively as a community—look forward to returning to our offices and figuring out how to work, collaborate, network, and learn together in person once more, we’d like to make sure we remember to celebrate the 2019–2020 accomplishments of our colleagues and classmates.

On behalf of the SEER Awards Committee, thank you to those that took a moment to submit a nomination for a 2020 SEER Award.  

More information on the awards can be found here,.

Protecting the environment

Protecting the environment

As Environmental Law Turns 50, COVID-19 Returns Safety to the Spotlight

Roger Martella is the incoming SEER education officer. He recently wrote about COVID-19 and corporate social responsibility for Trends. | Posted May 15, 2020

2020 marks several important golden jubilees of environmental movements, laws, and organizations. SEER is planning its own 50th-year festivities, gathering in Denver next spring to mark the 50th anniversary of the longest running annual national meeting in environmental law —once known as the Keystone Conference. I look forward to seeing you there!

All of these diverse celebrations—from the first national environmental law to the first Earth Day—have one common thread: protecting the environment and Planet Earth. But a closer look at what led to these celebrated developments reveals another theme at the forefront 50 years ago.

These movements began with a focus on safety. Families were getting sick living on contaminated lands, breathing toxic air, and drinking dirty water. Congress responded with laws that focused foremost on keeping people safe. The method was environmental protection but the overarching goal was public safety; thus, most environmental laws reference protecting the environment and public health.

Prior to COVID-19, I had increasingly thought the public health and safety component of the environmental mission has been diluted over time, and needed to reclaim its position as a key driver of law and policy. In recent decades, this mission has morphed into important but contentious debates about the use of energy, resources, and the economy in general. Despite landmark legal successes at the outset of the environmental movement, the growing polarization and inability to reach consensus has stagnated Congress for longer than my entire career. And while various administrations have attempted to fill some gaps through regulations, outdated legal tools and protracted legal battles have delayed significant forward momentum for too long.

COVID-19 is the starkest reminder of the need to return to the roots of the environmental cause and prioritize the public’s health and keeping people safe. In the relatively short time since the pandemic’s onset, it’s been inspiring to see the business community highlighting safety. It’s been the forefront of what they do, in both protecting employees and in rising to the call to provide for the critical needs of the health care community, sick people, and healthy families adapting to a changed world. Two weeks ago, I participated in a call with 25 of my colleagues at diverse companies and institutions and was in awe of the steps they are taking to make safety the most important measure for their companies during this challenging time. COVID-19 has quickly encouraged an atmosphere of collaboration, shared resources, and a “we’re in this together” focus to tackle one of the world’s most formidable problems while emphasizing safety.

When I started my career at the Justice Department in the late 1990s, focusing on the trust responsibility to improve conditions in Indian Country, I was similarly in awe learning about how the government stepped up during formative times to implement bold policies that protected people first and foremost. We had a small law library with decades-old books, and I would geek out reading legislative histories of lawmakers coming together to invest in a safer nation with little partisan debate. While COVID-19 regrettably hasn’t cured partisanship, efforts by the public and private sectors at all levels to work together to keep people safe reminds me of that spirit of focused problem solving toward protecting people that is at the foundation of environmentalism and environmental law.

It would be the most fitting recognition of 50 years of environmental law if this emphasis on safety, protecting people, and the pursuit of the common good remains after COVID is addressed.

The views expressed herein are strictly the author’s and not any former or current clients and or employers.

Working from home

Working from home

COVID-19 Chronicles: Explaining My Work to My New Toddler Colleague/Manager

Jonathan Nwagbaraocha, council member, ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) | Posted May 8, 2020

I hope everyone is safe and healthy.

During this time, a lot of people have been working from home. For me, part of working from home involves working with a new colleague, my three-year-old daughter, Grace.

Perhaps new colleague is the wrong word. . . new manager is more appropriate. Colleagues generally ask about how your day is going. Managers usually want specific details about what you are doing and if you are achieving goals and deliverables.

While we were eating breakfast one morning, I tell her I must go upstairs to work. She asks, in manager fashion, “What are you doing at work?”

I struggled to explain what I do. I tell her that I practice environmental law, but that was met with a confused look by Grace. Words like attorney and lawyer are pretty much meaningless to someone who generally identifies you as dad. In an attempt to further clarify, I started rambling about laws to protect the earth, electronic product compliance, and sustainability. Her response to my elaborate explanation was “What?”

I paused and then explained that I read and talk to people. Grace deemed this a sufficient response and went back to eating her Kix.

Over the course of the months of working from home, I’ve tried to figure out ways to show Grace what I do. This has manifested in a “bring your child to work” day-type activities. During these days, Grace and I work in the same space. She may occasionally help me type by pressing a key or click a button to start a meeting. But usually, we end up reading together or playing with her toys during my free moments throughout the day. For the most part, she is quiet during meetings, but there have been some awkward moments when she starts singing about being a superhero or a marching dinosaur.

I can’t be certain whether Grace understands what I do after these “bring your child to work” days. But it has been important for me to include her in my daily work schedule. It allows us to spend time together and I can give her a glimpse into what I do. As she grows up, hopefully I can build on these moments and share further details of what it means to be an EHSS attorney.

I’m interested in hearing your experience of explaining what you do to your newfound home-based colleagues/managers.

As incoming Membership and Diversity Officer, I’m also interested in hearing your ideas about how ABA SEER can continue to build a diverse community of lawyers, advisors, and decision-makers.

Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado

COVID-19: Past Section Chairs Share Their Experience

Howard Kenison, chair-elect, ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) | Posted April 27, 2020

In Denver, we are entering week seven of a state-imposed stay-at-home order. Remote working is now routine.

Without the daily commute to the office, I'm finding more time to reach out and stay connected with Section members, by phone, email, and virtually.

We’re a big country. The pandemic’s impact on our members’ work can vary based on local, state, and regional factors—be they related to the capacity of health systems, as well as economic and social factors.

I asked two past Section chairs, Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Assistant Administrator, Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, EPA, in Washington, DC, and Bill Penny, Partner, Burr & Forman LLP, in Nashville, to weigh in on how the pandemic is affecting their practices. Each graciously responded.

How is the COVID-19 outbreak in your area?

Alex Dunn
Since late January, OCSPP staff have been tirelessly working—at night, on weekends, teleworking while balancing home life—to ensure that Americans are aware of and have access to effective surface disinfectant products to use against the novel coronavirus. At the same time, we are also working to carry out the other normal business of the agency. We’re adjusting, such as holding virtual public meetings instead of in-person meetings. My staff has also shown resilience, flexibility, and adaptability as well as commitment to the EPA mission and great compassion for one another during this challenging time.

Bill Penny
COVID-19 began in Nashville in March just after deadly tornadoes tore through the Nashville area. All bars and restaurants closed, the SEC basketball tournament was cancelled, and Broadway honkytonks were silenced. Essential services remain open, including legal services. Offices are ghost towns as nearly everyone works from home, conducting business by conference or Zoom calls. Courts are discouraging or cancelling in-person routine civil matters. We’re busy re-drafting or re-interpreting force majeure language or assisting businesses with recent government assistance programs. It's an eerie feeling seeing everyone, including me, wearing masks in our southern states. People are enduring by walking outside with their family and binge-watching shows on Netflix together.

Post COVID-19, what will be the future implications for environmental, energy, and resources law?

Alex Dunn
Speaking for OCSPP, I know we will assess the efficiencies we put in place, in the case of my office, for the disinfectant manufacturers under FIFRA to ensure a steady supply of product to help keep Americans healthy. We may find that some of these efficiencies should remain post COVID-19. We also may find that some of our virtual engagements were ultimately very effective and look at being a more technology receptive office in the future. 

Bill Penny
Practicing environmental, energy and resources law will continue to be viable as the need to address permitting and compliance matters will not change. Environmental agencies will be hiring talented lawyers. But, change in the legal practice is accelerating. In our firms, we’ll be doing more with less staff and more reliant on technology. Remote contact may have implications for decisions to have offices in expensive high rises. Of concern after the pandemic is law firms eliminating or discouraging financial contributions to the ABA or even state and local bar associations. Even with lower dues, participation in conferences and leadership meetings may be beyond the financial reach of most lawyers without law firm financial support. I believe this collegiality would be sorely missed.

Thank you, Alex and Bill, for your thoughtful responses, and wishing you all the best. 

Social isolation in Maine

Social isolation in Maine

Mainely Isolated

Karen A. Mignone, chair, ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) | Posted April 8, 2020

These are strange and sometimes scary times. Because my husband and I had to do a 14-day quarantine after a visit to Rhode Island and contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, we are now 37 days into sheltering in place in Maine. We haven’t had a TV since 2004 (Red Sox) but I have signed up for Netflix which we watch on laptops. Our neighbors, some friends, and our families get together a couple of times a week via Zoom (any excuse for a cocktail) which helps break up the week.

Since the decision was made to cancel the in person Spring Conference, some of my time has been spent working with Section leaders to repurpose the conference content. Every planning committee works really hard to develop the best conference possible, but this one was tasked with an entirely new proposition—focusing plenary sessions on important policy issues to be followed by breakout sessions building on and diving into the plenary information. A subgroup developed the first of a series of litigation training programs that doesn’t work as a webinar, so it will be offered during the 2020-2021 ABA year.

The Spring Conference planning chair, Norm Dupont, his committee, education officer Susan Floyd, and staff members Allison Read and Valentia Sundell, have turned to transforming conference content into a series of webinars that will be offered free to our Section members. The 49th Annual Spring Conference will be virtual, beginning with two webinars on April 23 - one CLE and one non-CLE. The remainder of the conference will be offered through a series of free CLE webinars presented in June. The decision to provide this valuable programming to members at no cost is one way we would like to show our appreciation for your support us as we navigate this strange time.

As I sit here in rural Maine (where we live is, by definition, social isolation) I am trying to make sense of what is happening in the world. I think about my friends who are emergency responders, emergency room doctors, infectious disease doctors, nurses, and others who are up to their necks in the madness. I am grateful for each of them, and for their dedication to dealing with a pandemic—something the US has not seen since 1918. There are others too, truckers, people in grocery stores and pharmacies, all types of essential workers. When I think all those people focused on keeping us safe and fed, I realize having to cancel our in-person conference, while disappointing, is really just a minor glitch.

I think during this time of social isolation, it will benefit all of us to remain in touch with each other and look for ways to interact. Please reach out to any member of Council or staff if you have ideas on how to connect. If you would like to take a turn on writing something for this blog, please drop me an email. Chair-Elect Howard Kenison is up next.

We hope you and your family are safe and healthy, and keeping busy. On behalf of Section leadership, we want to thank you for your support, and look forward to seeing you at a future conference.