Recently, the environmental law center at UNC School of Law changed its name to the UNC School of Law Center for Climate, Energy, Environment and Economics (CE3). This change recognizes CE3’s expanded mission to engage the intersection of law and policies governing climate, energy, environment and economic development. The expansion is fueled in part by a leadership gift from the Duke Energy Foundation.
It may seem odd that a law school environmental center would receive a grant from a foundation associated with a large private energy corporation that has faced its share of environmental violations and criticisms. But I believe this partnership is exactly what is called for if we are to make progress in tackling environmental and climate degradation while still providing for access to energy and development for our citizenry.
Much of our traditional environmental air and water pollution were related to the extraction, transport and utilization of fossil-fueled energy. Our historic response has been to control such pollution when and where produced. This has led to a complex regulatory system that has greatly lessened environmental degradation in the United States, but has not eliminated the harm to human health and the environment. The advent of climate change has highlighted the shortcomings of this approach, and argues that to protect our health and the natural world, we must do more than simply bandage wounds where they occur.
The provision of energy too has changed. The traditional electric grid and distribution system through which most people receive their power is undergoing a rapid economic and technological change. Non-hydro renewable sources of generation, which made up less than 2 percent of the U.S. energy mix 10 years ago, are fast approaching 10 percent of our electricity mix. Enforcement of existing laws have pushed the price of using the dirtiest fossil fuels up to reflect the actual cost of their use. The cost of producing electricity from renewable sources has approached or in some cases even undercut the costs of electricity from fossil fuel or nuclear power plants.
Perhaps more important, for the first time in history, economic growth has decoupled from energy demand. Significant numbers of consumers are now getting their electricity from their rooftops, and smart grid technology allows consumers to better adjust their demand for power to more closely match their needs.
We are in the midst of a revolution in how we use energy. We have the chance to provide the public access to energy and development while continuing to cut harmful pollutants and stabilizing our climate. But many legal and policy questions must be revisited. What will our transportation mix look like in the future? How much should home solar users be paid for power? Who should be in charge of the construction and maintenance of electric transmission lines? How do we reduce environmental impacts from these new transmission lines and larger scale renewable installations? How do we assist communities that are economically decimated by shifts in energy usage or climate impacts?
These are questions not only for the body politic but for the private industries long associated with the provision of energy. Duke Energy is asking itself the same questions and finding the right answers will impact whether or not it and other companies can move forward while responding to environmental and climate challenges.
I welcome their assistance in tackling these important issues. I have always worked to enforce our environmental laws and protect the public, and our commitment to that at Carolina Law won’t change. But continued solutions won’t come about from isolated discussions of particular interest groups. At Carolina Law, our job is to train our students in the theory and practice of environmental, energy, natural resource and climate law. We cannot do that without a full understanding of all of our energy and environmental laws and policies, how they relate, and how they can be made better for the environment and the public.
Victor B. Flatt is a Tom & Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law; Director, Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources; Co-Director, North Carolina Coastal Resources Law, Planning, and Policy Center at University of North Carolina School of Law; and Distinguished Scholar of Carbon Markets, Global Energy Management Institute, UH.