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Breakthrough Magazine

Q&A with Nathan Richardson, School of Law

Nathan Richardson joined the University of South Carolina’s law school faculty last fall, leaving an environmental policy think tank in Washington, D.C., to further pursue his research and teaching interests. He focuses on environmental law and climate change, and hopes to put his expertise to work in serving the Palmetto State.

What do you study in environmental law?

There are two main thrusts to what I do. One is the regulation of the electricity sector at the federal level. A lot of this regulation has come out of the Clean Air Act, which is an old law that has been repurposed to address problems related to climate change. It includes some new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency that might result in sweeping changes — big shifts away from coal toward gas or maybe nuclear and renewables to make electricity.

I’m also interested in oil and gas but that’s mostly low-level, state regulation. Most oil and gas law in this country is state law. My work has looked at how regulation in different states has or hasn’t changed in response to really large increases in [oil and gas] production due to fracking.

Is this an area of law that is constantly changing?

Almost everything that I study at the federal level is existing law. In fact, the Clean Air Act in its modern form dates to the 1970s. Under the law, Congress pushes a lot of authority to the EPA. Even though the text of the law was written a long time ago, what that means in practice is that it’s still evolving today in big and important ways. Some states are changing the way that they regulate shale development, not just because of environmental risk but because there is oil and gas development happening in places that didn’t have it before. It’s really interesting to see those different approaches and how they work or don’t work and reflect the different values and preferences of the people locally.

What are you focusing on now?

The biggest area of my research now is federal regulation under the Clean Air Act specifically aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel such as coal plants and natural gas plants. The fossil fuel power sector is the biggest, single greenhouse gas emitting sector in the economy. More emissions come from coal and gas plants than from any other area, including cars and trucks. It’s natural for the EPA to look at that as the first place to regulate. If you can find a way to get  emissions down from those power plants, you might be able to do it, if not more cheaply, then more simply. EPA has proposed rules called the Clean Power Plan that apply to this electric power sector to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Why are these rules important?

They are doing this through a part of the Clean Air Act that has almost never been used before. So in spite of it being a really old law, there’s new legal territory to research. Traditionally, this hasn’t been the EPA’s role, getting involved in how we choose fuels and how the electric power sector works. That’s been mostly a state regulated thing with a little bit of federal involvement. So this is new territory for the EPA, but it does have the responsibility under the Clean Air Act for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is controversial because the EPA hasn’t been in this game before and because everything related to climate is controversial. It has the potential to significantly reduce emissions. It’s necessary for the president to fulfill promises his administration made as far as [greenhouse gas] reductions as part of a deal that was made with China last year. And it’s the first and biggest step in going through the U.S. economy sector-by-sector in trying to reduce emissions.

How did you get interested in this area of the law?

I’ve always been interested in the environment. I spent a lot of time growing up outside, and I’m also kind of an energy and infrastructure nerd. I like systems and understanding the way that they work. In law school, I had great teachers and professors for energy and environmental law who really got me passionate about it. It was a really interesting time to be a lawyer [in this area of law] because people thought there would be new legislation on a cap-and-trade bill that would really change the energy landscape. But that didn’t happen, so, instead, policy has had to be cobbled together from all these other tools, and it really takes a lawyer to understand it.

Are you still involved on the policy side of this research?

I try to be. I’m hoping to do that more in South Carolina to try to understand the energy policy here. I’ve tried to make myself available to anyone that I can be helpful to. Ultimately it will be the states who are responsible for complying with the EPA rules. South Carolina, to its credit, is on top of this. It’s built a group of stakeholders to try to understand what perspective to take at the proposal stage. I’ve been in limited contact with that group and hope to work with people there more.