Environmental Clinic Students Tackle Timely Topics
As clean energy, climate policy and the Atlantic Coast pipeline crowded headlines about the environment this year, the work of students in the University of Virginia School of Law's Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic followed in step.
Over the next 50 years, climate and energy policy will be a seminal issue, said Cale Jaffe, who began his role as the clinic's director in the fall after serving as an attorney and director of the Virginia office with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
"There are a lot of different ways to help our non-profit clients achieve their goals," Jaffe said. "For students in the Clinic, I want to give them the opportunity to think creatively about how lawyers do that. I want them to meet with leaders in the organizations we are representing to talk about litigation options. But I also want them to investigate administrative and regulatory avenues for advocacy."
In March the clinic represented the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council in a utility commission docket aimed at expanding energy efficiency programs in Dominion Virginia Power’s service territory.
The case allowed clinic student Matt Schneider '17, who has a third-year practice certificate, the chance to cross-examine an expert witness from Dominion at an evidentiary hearing before the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
"There's something to be said for getting up there in a real courtroom where it really matters," Schneider said. "Having Professor Jaffe help me prepare was a great experience, and it was an experience in practice I might not have gotten until years down the road."
In response to Executive Order 57 from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, which calls for the development of carbon-reduction strategies, the clinic met with Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward to discuss ways to leverage existing state laws to reduce global warming pollution from sources within the commonwealth.
The meeting led to an opportunity for the clinic to travel to Richmond and present to the governor’s working group on the order. Opeyemi Akinbamidele '17 and Ryan McClafferty '17 also drafted recommendations outlining the governor's existing legal authority on the matter.
In February, the clinic represented the Piedmont Environmental Council in a successful effort before the State Corporation Commission to support approval of a 20-megawatt solar energy farm to be built by Dominion in Fauquier County, Virginia. When completed, the facility will generate enough electricity to provide zero-emission power for approximately 5,000 homes.
Also on the energy front, the clinic is engaged in an ongoing effort with The Nature Conservancy in Nevada to evaluate barriers to developing solar energy projects on reclaimed mine lands.
Closer to home, students supported the work of attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center working to oppose construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its draft environmental impact statement for the pipeline earlier this year, Carroll Courtenay '18 helped to draft comments on the statement, which were due in April. Another clinic student, Joe Charlet '18, worked on the conservation easement aspect.
"It was a fun project to be involved in because there was a deadline, and we accomplished something during the time I was in the class," Courtenay said.
SELC submitted more than 400 pages of comments, according to Courtenay. She conducted legal research about the standards that the courts use to review the draft environmental impact statements and identified locations of missing information.
Not all cases are wrapped up in the course of the semester-long clinic. Courtenay and classmate James Dennison '18 both worked on SELC's efforts to remediate water pollution from coal ash lagoons adjacent to the Potomac and James Rivers. The lagoons house the waste left behind after coal is burned for energy.
During the fall semester, Dennison said he was able to gain experience conducting legal research on statutory background.
"The clinic offers a good mix of theory and practice," he said. "We get a lot of feedback on memos and drafts of things we turn into SELC from Professor Jaffe. I found that to be very helpful, working through questions in a classroom setting."