Energy law paralegals work with legal issues dealing with resource extraction, energy utility and transmission, and regulatory regimes surrounding the production and use of all forms of energy. From nuclear to coal to solar power, the modern world runs on a massive amount of power coming from many different sources. With the slowly dawning consequences of global carbon emissions becoming clear, the energy industry is being pressed to adapt and evolve and the legal aspects of the changes are creating a big demand for experienced energy law paralegals.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, power has been big business, whatever the source it springs from. Originally, when water wheels and windmills dominated the landscape, consumers of the energy generated from those sources worked to secure their access to the streams and open land where the energy was generated.
Coal for heating and to power ships and generating plants soon became the focus, and brought with it legal concerns focused on mining operations and transportation issues.
Later, when oil and gas became the power sources of choice, drilling rights and pipeline easements became matters of great concern, and are now getting more attention than ever with the brutal fight between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Energy Transfer Partners over the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Today, wind and water are again becoming matters that pop up on the radar of law firms that specialize in energy law, together with solar plants, each of them with their own unique requirements when it comes to obtaining land rights and complying with government regulations.
Energy Law Work Spans Many Types of Legal Specialization
Energy law is deeply entwined with tax law, corporate, real estate, and environmental law, and sometimes even with international law. These areas of interaction continue to expand; for instance, lawyers and paralegals working on a tidal power project in Puget Sound in Washington state found themselves coordinating with agencies that include:
- S. Coast Guard
- Department of the Interior
- S Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Marine Fisheries Service
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Washington Department of Ecology
- Washington State Historic Preservation Office
Energy law also has a significant impact on the course of the energy sector. In the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the United States, legal concerns over liability effectively shuttered the U.S. nuclear industry. This also touched off a memorable series of major bond defaults on plants that were still under construction, notably the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS, known around the state as “Whoops!”). After seven years of litigation and a $700 million settlement spanning 22 separate settlement agreements, anybody can appreciate how it earned its nickname.
Paralegals have a hand in both negotiating and drafting such agreements, drawing on their expertise in both the legal and regulatory codes covering energy use but also more general legal knowledge of fraud and consumer protection law.
Before such matters lead to trial, paralegals work with energy companies to craft policies and procedures to ensure they comply with all relevant statues and to protect themselves against such litigation.
During trials, energy law paralegals fill in the traditional roles of assisting attorneys in drafting and filing motions and briefs, interviewing, deposing, and preparing witnesses, keeping track of the trial calendar, and preparing exhibits and evidence.
Energy Law Paralegals Help Utility Companies Keep The Lights On
Energy law also covers the complex matter of utility regulation. Due to the expense and difficulty of installing generation and transmission systems over a broad geographic area, energy utilities are usually granted an effective monopoly in their region. Without the safeguards that come when consumers are able to make a choice about who they spend their money with, government agencies provide significant oversight to make sure that prices are fair and that customers are being served effectively.
Paralegals working both within utilities and for the government agencies that oversee them might review or draft policy statements, work to address customer complaints, and work with utility staff to ensure that operations comply with state and federal regulations.
The Enron scandal helped illustrate the importance of this work. As California attempted to deregulate the energy market in 2000, Enron attempted to manipulate the market by illegally shutting down pipelines, leading to artificially-engineered energy shortages that resulted in the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric, the near-bankruptcy of Southern California Edison, and blackouts affecting more than a million customers. The revelation of how energy supplies were manipulated resulted in the downfall of Enron itself in 2001 and the 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis.
But as distributed, point-generation systems like home solar and micro-wind farms become more common, the deregulation movement is coming to the forefront once again to adapt distribution grids to the innovations that are coming as individuals and companies explore green energy sources.
Legislative deadlock doesn’t make this work any easier but it does make paralegal work in the field challenging and interesting. As an example, the most recent piece of legislation governing the Bonneville Power Administration, a government-run power marketing agency in the Pacific Northwest, was passed in 1980. The regulatory structure was never designed for the massive influx of wind or solar energy sources, or the technological improvements in the smart distribution grid. Finding legal methods of integrating those technologies under those ancient laws is an interesting creative challenge for paralegals.
Regulatory Complexity Keeps Energy Law Paralegals On Their Toes
Regulations are usually set down and enforced by state agencies like the utility and transportation departments, and the federal Department of Energy. DOE also handles all regulation of interstate energy commerce under its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which includes high power electrical transmission lines, gas and oil pipelines, and hydroelectric projects.
An unadvertised aspect of DOEs work also deals with nuclear power regulation, and specifically dealing with the waste generated by nuclear plants that are still in operation and from the original experiments in nuclear energy in the 1940s and 1950s. Radioactive waste can remain toxic for thousands of years and efforts to secure it in safe storage facilities for that time has touched off myriad legal battles with states and local communities.
And paralegals working for utilities find themselves faced with another sort of fundamental tension, having to find compromises to balance the need for compliance under increasingly stringent environmental regulations against mandates requiring them to keep rates affordable, all while still paying operating costs and eking out a profit. Part of this work involves lobbying for changes in those regulations to make compliance easier.
Paralegals working for both energy companies and for lobbying and law firms that represent those companies find themselves not only interpreting and working within the law, but also trying to shape it. Paralegals might help draft legislation and regulatory language and then explain it to legislators or voters.
Paralegal jobs in energy law often involve contract negotiations. This can take place on both the supply and demand side of energy services, including contracts to deliver electricity or to secure supplies of coal. Because regulations can vary from state to state, this process can quickly become enormously complicated and paralegals are left to do the lion’s share of research and outreach to state regulators in an effort to find equitable solutions.
Becoming an Energy Law Paralegal
The energy industry is highly specialized, which can make it difficult to step directly into a desirable position without the right expertise. The regulatory structure and concerns of a Western hydropower company will be enormously different from a Pennsylvania coal outfit. Paralegals have to work their way into positions by getting exposure to the relevant aspects of energy law.
As with any paralegal position, being highly organized and detail-oriented is a necessity, and any work or educational background that illustrate those qualities will work in your favor. Additionally, work in environmental law or real estate law may be a point in your favor depending on the specific job your are angling for.
Attending continuing education focused on the field will also build your credentials, such as specialty programs offered by the Energy Bar Association or the Center for American and International Law’s Institute for Energy Law. These presentations and courses offer deep dives into current hot topics in the field presented by practicing attorneys. Topics covered include:
- Shale oil extraction issues
- Oil and gas contract negotiations
- Oilfield services law
- Energy field ethics
There are also a large number of energy law certificate programs offered by universities. These are typically graduate certificates, which require that you already possess an undergraduate degree in a related field. Some, however, are open to current enrollees in the schools who have completed at least one semester of study in legal topics. The certificates require 12-14 credit hours of additional study focused on energy law topics like:
- Mineral rights and resource extraction
- Climate and renewable energy law
- Administrative law