Energy law is the field of law concerned with creating, enforcing and challenging laws that regulate energy use. Laws exist that regulate the creation and harvesting of energy. There are laws that regulate taxation of energy use. Energy companies and the public alike must navigate energy laws as they relate to the sale, use and conservation of energy resources.
Many people don’t realize how much energy laws and regulations impact their daily life. Each time you put gasoline in your vehicle, you’re paying energy taxes. When you sell a vehicle or renew your license plate, you pay fees to the state you live in. When you use power in your home, you’re using energy from a power plant that complied with regulations to conduct business. There are energy laws at federal, state and even local levels. Energy laws and policies even impact international relations.
The development of federal energy laws
Most energy laws come from the U.S. Department of Energy. Until the 1920s, energy consumption went on largely unregulated in the United States. Beginning in the 1920s with the Federal Power Act of 1920, the United States began to heavily regulate energy use nationwide. Before then, Americans largely saw energy as a unlimited resource. As they began to realize that natural energy resources are limited, public support began to grow for regulations that regulate and ration energy use. Later legislation included the Manhattan Project of the 1940s and the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. Lawmakers also amended the Federal Power Act of 1920 in 1935 and 1986.
The 1977 Department of Energy Organization Act created the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The U.S. Department of Energy is a run by a member of the U.S. President’s cabinet. The purpose of the Department of Energy is to regulate responsible use of domestic energy and protect national security as it relates to energy development and use.
Areas of energy regulation
- Nuclear power – One significant area of federal regulation is nuclear power. Nuclear power is important for the U.S. economy. It’s also critically important for national security. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the use of nuclear power for energy and nuclear power as it relates to national defense.
- Development of clean energy – The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides for tax incentives and loan guarantees for companies and individuals who develop and produce clean energy. The law also extends daylight savings time in an effort to save energy. The Act extends U.S. policies that offer rebates and incentives for green energy use. The Car Allowance Rebate System, commonly known as the Cash for Clunkers program, followed the Energy Policy Act in 2009 to incentivize vehicle owners to scrap their gas-guzzling vehicles in favor of more fuel-efficient models. In addition, U.S. federal policy encourages the development of clean energy through the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy and Renewable Energy. The office operates with a $2.3 billion annual budget and invests its resources in hybrid technology, research and energy innovations.
- Regulation of oil and gas – Most oil and gas regulations take place on a state level. All states have some measure of energy oversight and regulation. However, the amount of regulation in each state varies wildly based on the natural resources available in the state. States with large oil and gas reserves like Alaska and Texas might have a great deal of regulation on the state level. State regulations dictate how individuals and corporations may harvest, refine, transport and ultimately sell natural resources.
- International policies – Politicians and federal employees practice energy law by working with foreign governments to create and enforce energy agreements. Foreign governments meet to discuss energy use by agreement including through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. International leaders also develop policies regarding nuclear technology and weapons such as the International Agreement on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Energy laws and property law
On a micro level, energy laws connect property owners with the energy companies that want to harvest resources and bring them to consumers. Energy laws cross with the property laws and contract laws that say whether and on what terms utility companies can enter onto property in order to harvest energy or deliver utilities to customers. Under common law, property owners had control over the space underneath their land to the center of the earth. They owned the space above their land into outer space. However, in the United States v Causby, the U.S. Supreme Court said that there are practical limitations to these common-law theories of property law.
Lawyers help their clients with energy issues that include energy harvesting, low-altitude flights and other nuisance and property encroachment activities. They help their clients understand utility easements and develop best practices to deliver energy to consumers. Whether they represent a private property owner or an energy company, they help their client negotiate terms for the lease or sale of oil and gas rights on the property.
An emerging area of law
Department of Energy policies can change quickly. Energy attorneys need to help their clients follow and implement these changes. Helping a client follow changes in federal and state directives allows the client to stay in compliance with laws and regulations as well as conduct business in the best ways possible. Lawyers may also help their clients with litigation and formal hearings as disagreements arise about compliance with laws and agreements relating to energy production and use.
Who practices energy law?
Energy lawyers live and work throughout the United States. They work in public and private practice. Energy lawyers work on a variety of concepts relating to energy.
Most private practice energy lawyers work as in-house counsel, or they work for large corporations. Energy companies are generally established, large-scale corporations or corporations with a significant amount of start-up costs. They usually need several lawyers and a legal team with sufficient resources to meet their needs. Energy law is complex, and it encompasses a wide variety of types of law and client needs. Large law firms and in-house attorneys have the expertise and resources to help their clients meet these needs.
Some lawyers might work in small firm and private practice representing individual landowners. Landowners may interact with energy and gas companies if the companies want to negotiate rights to harvest energy on the property. Lawyers that represent the property owners help them negotiate these contracts in a way that complies with the laws and has terms that are advantageous to their clients.
Many energy lawyers work for the U.S. Department of Energy or for state agencies that regulate energy production and use. The U.S. Department of Energy is located in Washington D.C., and most federal energy lawyers base out of that location. However, lawyers for the U.S. Department of Energy may participate in litigation, inspections and meetings nationally and even throughout the world.
Lawyers who work in private practice work throughout the country. Energy companies must comply with both federal and state regulations. Companies need lawyers on site to understand their needs, handle negotiations and complete regulatory filings at federal, state and local levels. Lawyers tend to gravitate to areas where there are natural resources. That’s where energy companies are most likely to exist and as a result, it’s where they need lawyers. Energy companies also need lawyers in Washington D.C. to lobby for favorable energy laws and policies.
Why Become an Energy Lawyer?
Energy lawyers have a significant impact on society. National energy policies are often a matter of significant debate. Energy lawyers play a role in the development and enforcement of energy policies. In addition, energy lawyers work for large companies or for state and federal government agencies. The work is often stable and ongoing.
While many lawyers struggle to develop a client base, energy lawyers may have one, recurring client for their entire career. The field of law is complex. Lawyers who can understand and analyze scientific information may find that their skills are worth a premium. For lawyers who enjoy having influence, a great deal of responsibility and the opportunity to make an impact, energy law may be the right fit.
Energy law is complex and changing
Energy law is more important than ever before. Lawyers who practice energy law have the opportunity to help their clients fulfill their business objectives while staying in compliance with the law. They also have the opportunity to influence public policy and international relations. Lawyers who enjoy complex work in a constantly changing area of law may find steady and enjoyable work in the field of energy law.