GW Celebrates 40th Anniversary of Environmental Law Program

The GW Environmental Law Program (“ELP”) celebrated its 40th Anniversary on November 6, 2010.  The event included a panel on the Gulf Oil Spill and the Law, a luncheon with remarks from Arnold Reitze— the ELP’s founder— and tours of the law school and university.

The ELP was formally established in 1970 with a $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, making it one of the earliest law schools to establish such a program and perhaps the first to offer an environmental law LL.M. degree.[1] Since that time, it has grown to include a broad environmental curriculum of more than 20 courses ranging across the environmental, energy, and natural resources spectrum.

Professor Robert Glicksman, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law, introduced the panel on the Gulf Oil Spill (“the Spill”).  He highlighted many of the emerging elements of the ELP, including a course on International Climate Change Law, an active Environmental Law Association student group, a study abroad program with the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and JEEL.

The panel consisted of five alumni of the ELP: Tom Hayes, Kim Connolly, Patrick Parenteau, Alison Riser, and Sandra Zellmer.

Tom Hayes, Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Environmental Law, discussed the legal issues his agency faced in responding to the Spill.  He worked with environmental groups to avoid lawsuits related to many of the federal government’s most effective options for containing the spill, including skimming, the use of dispersants, and in-situ burning.

Professor Kim Connolly of the University of Buffalo Law School discussed the role of the media in covering the Spill.  Her preliminary findings suggest that while there was enormous media coverage of the incident and the response, there was little mainstream coverage of the relevant legal issues and this lack of coverage has potentially important implications for environmental advocacy.

Professor Patrick Parenteau of the University of Vermont Law School discussed the need to break “the oil habit.”  He focused on the environmental and economic implications of climate change, the planet’s finite supply of oil, and the need to de-carbonize the transportation sector.

Professor Alison Rieser of the University of Hawai’i noted that oil spills are inevitable and we must learn from them to avoid future incidents.  Among the lessons from this Spill, she noted the insufficiency of financial liability as a deterrent and the need to use existing laws to prevent oil development in areas we cannot afford to lose.  She cited the establishment of Pacific Marine National Monuments as a positive example.

Professor Sandra Zellmer of the University of Nebraska College of Law argued in favor of a regulatory change that would reinstate Worst-Case Analysis (“WCA”) in the NEPA review process.  She noted that CEQ’s decision to rescind this requirement in 1986 has made it difficult to assess the true costs and risks of a project, and for the government and the regulated industry to prepare effectively for disasters such as the Spill.

The luncheon was held at the American Institute of Architects.  Interim Dean Gregory Maggs introduced Professor Reitze, who spent over thirty-eight years teaching at GW and returned for the first time since retiring to Utah in 2008.  His remarks touched on some of the cultural differences between Washington and Utah and urged attendees to consider the implications of these differences for the development of effective environmental policies.

The program concluded with tours of the Law School from current students and campus tours on the “Greening of GW” led by the GW Office of Sustainability.

-Kent Grasso, Editor-in-Chief


[1] GW Law, Environmental Perspectives Newsletter, Fall 2010, available at

http://issuu.com/gwlawpubs/docs/fall_2010_enviro_newsletter?viewMode=magazine&mode=embed.

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