Opening Statements

Arizona State's Law School Breaks Ground with Sustainability Program

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Arizona State law professor Joe Feller (second from right) with law students (from left) Cathy Fine, Eric Templeton, Michelle Drury, Brian Webb and Erika Mansur on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Bret Birdsong

The unusually harsh winter and skyrocketing oil prices may have caused the public to be more concerned with climate change and sustainable energy policies, but the legal and regulatory issues connected with sustainability often go unmentioned.

This year, Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has launched a new sustainability program that will directly address those legal and regulatory issues.

“Our hope is that we can help governments and corporations navigate their way through this new energy age,” says program director Kristin Mayes, who formerly served on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

According to Mayes, the new program will offer a core curriculum in both the legal and regulatory aspects of sustainable use. Law students also will have the chance to participate in joint corporate-university projects, which offer a “potentially enormous” opportunity to get their feet in employers’ doors, she says.

“We want our students to be competitive in getting those jobs. In addition to the law firms, governments and nonprofits would look well upon students who have a sustainability background, who can … deal with issues like ‘How do we contract to put renewable energy systems into our building?’ or ‘How do we make our fleet of vehicles more sustainable?’ These are all issues that have legal elements to them.”

Sustainable-use policies entail a broad spectrum of issues, including development of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards, and new and innovative rate structures for utilities designed to encourage more sustainable energy practices, she says. “This is a burgeoning area of the law. It made sense to start this program and give our students, and to some extent our state, a leg up in this area.”

Steven McKinney, chair of the ABA’s Section of Environment, Energy and Resources and a partner at Balch & Bingham in Birmingham, Ala., says there is a growing need for knowledge among lawyers in the field of sustainability. “It is one element of a good business lawyer’s or energy lawyer’s [knowledge base],” he says. Few attorneys will specialize in sustainability law per se, McKinney says, but many will need to know something about the issues.

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