Environmental Practice: Deep Roots, Marquee Matters

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Morgan Lewis, one of the first major firms to establish an environmental practice, dramatically enhanced those capabilities with the integration of a highly experienced team from Bingham McCutchen in 2014, creating one of the largest integrated environmental practices in the United States. Morgan Lewis now has more than 50 lawyers who practice environmental law exclusively and many more who spend part of their practice working on environmental issues in related fields, such as nuclear energy, project development, mergers and acquisitions, and insurance coverage.

Practice leader Jim Dragna (who serves along with a team of Morgan Lewis lawyers as coordinating counsel to Anadarko Petroleum in a multidistrict litigation involving the explosion and release of hydrocarbons from the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig into the Gulf of Mexico) answered a few questions about the group:

What is the history of this group?

Our team has foundations that extend to the beginning of environmental law. Both groups were founded in the late 1970s by truly legendary lawyers: Bingham’s by Dave Andrews at Bingham’s predecessor firm and by John Quarles at Morgan Lewis. Ed Strohbehn from our San Francisco office co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most influential environmental groups in the United States, in 1970. A number of our lawyers held senior positions at key government regulatory agencies, including the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, the US Department of the Interior, and the US Department of State.  As big firms entered and then exited the environmental market while the practice evolved, we stayed in and managed over time to increase our presence in the field. We are now in an excellent position to take advantage of our footprint, and our breadth of experience to expand our services to clients as the world once again turns its focus to the environment.   

What are the hallmarks of the environmental practice?

As one of the first environmental practices established at a major law firm, our roots run deep. As a result, the team has a powerful historical perspective on environmental enforcement and regulation, and broad experience in a wide range of business areas, including the chemical, energy, transportation and manufacturing sectors. We work with clients across the United States and abroad, and our work spans the entire spectrum of traditional environmental issues such as water, waste, air, and transactional matters. But we do more than just respond to crises. We have a major presence in the evolving fields of environmental law, including endangered species and natural resources, alternative energy, process safety, crisis management, hydraulic fracturing, and climate change. We counsel, we negotiate and, when necessary, we litigate.

What types of matters has the team worked on recently?

Certainly, the Deepwater Horizon litigation is a marquee representation, but our work goes well beyond that case. For example, last month, Ken Komoroski led a Morgan Lewis team to a major trial victory for Range Resources in one of the first cases seeking relief for damages associated with hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale. Ella Foley Gannon is working on the development of a major intrastate gas pipeline in California. We also are working with a major utility to decommission a nuclear power plant, we represent a number of international clients in matters here and abroad, and we are working on some of the largest Superfund matters in the United States involving billions of dollars of remediation costs, including the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in Oregon, the Passaic River Superfund Site in New Jersey, and the Westlake Landfill in Missouri.  

What are some of the more significant environmental issues facing clients today? 

The absence of risk-based cleanup standards, indoor air quality monitoring, and the runaway cost of clean ups, particularly in marine sediment cases, are huge issues in the Superfund program. New air emission regulations, the regulation of toxic chemicals in the marketplace, and inconsistent state and federal environmental regulatory programs are also on our clients' minds. On the development side, state and local restrictions and non-governmental organization (NGO) litigation involving resource and infrastructure development are also problematic.

What issues do you see emerging in the next five years?

The field of environmental law is always evolving. Climate change-driven regulation will play a major role in the environmental regulatory and development landscape for years to come, not just with respect to air emissions, but also the effects that sea level change may have on development projects and permitting. In the US Southwest, water supply, use and reuse will play key roles in virtually every major industry. I also expect to see the battles intensify over the development of natural resources such as oil and gas, power and renewable resources, and the construction of the associated transmission systems such as transmission lines and pipelines to move these resources. Finally, major catastrophic events such as the Deepwater Horizon incident and other major spills have highlighted the need for company-wide process or safety programs. The federal government is responding, and has promulgated new regulations (SEMS I and II) that apply to deepwater exploration and production. Ultimately, these standards will become the norm, and an effective process safety program will be a major factor in post-catastrophic event penalties and enforcement.

In short, there is much to do and much to think about.

For further reading:

10th Circuit Finds Price-Anderson Act Does Not Preempt Nuisance Claims, July 30, 2015

PA Court Holds That Natural Gas Producer Improperly Deducted Fees, July 24, 2015

New CEC Administrative Penalties Regulations to Take Effect, June 4, 2015

Final Clean Water Act Rule Likely to Expand Act’s Application, June 3, 2015

US Fish and Wildlife Service Considering Permit Program Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to Cover Commercial and Industrial Activities, June 1, 2015