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Energy conference at UH sparks discussion on human rights, ESG and nuclear reliability

March 08, 2024 — The outlook for energy law and policy took center stage at the American Bar Association (ABA) 2024 Americas Conference last week at the University of Houston. Experts examined nuclear energy options, compliance in energy trade, and the intersection of environmental justice with human rights.

University of Houston Law Center faculty and students provided insights, under the conference theme "The Future of Energy Across the Americas: Helping Lawyers Predict and Adapt."
Gina S. Warren, A.L. O’Quinn Chair in Environmental Studies and Co-Director of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources (EENR) Center at UHLC, spoke on a panel about “The Impact ESG and Human Rights Due Diligence on the Western Hemisphere Energy Sector.”

She highlighted the historical connection between the Environmental Justice Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, referencing the 1970s case Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management, where a predominantly Black neighborhood in Houston fought against the establishment of a landfill in their area.

Warren explained that the Climate Justice Movement, following on the heels of the Environmental Justice Movement confronts the disproportionate disadvantage faced by many communities in the global south due to energy-related activities by the global north.

Warren

In particular, Warren notes that “internationally, women and girls within those communities are the most vulnerable to climate hazards.”

In her recent paper, "Gender and Climate Justice: Demanding a Voice in the Energy Transition," Warren delves into this intersectionality. Drawing from United Nations data, she reveals a projection that by “2050 158 million women and girls will be forced into poverty conditions due to climate change – 16 million more than men and boys – and 236 million women and girls will suffer malnutrition and hunger.”

According to Warren, the climate crisis not only destroys the environment, it destroys livelihoods, displaces families, and subjects populations to poverty. When this happens, intimate partner violence spikes, girls are pulled from schools, daughters are married off or leave home early exposing them to higher risk of sex exploitation and trafficking. The global north has a heightened responsibility to stop creating climate and environmental damage as well as a responsibility to create economic and leadership opportunities for the most disadvantaged.”

Further environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations were addressed in the panel "ESG in Energy, Trade and Supply Chain: Cleaner, Greener and More Responsible."

Julian Cardenas Garcia, Research Assistant Professor and Director for the Center for U.S. and Mexican Law at UHLC, emphasized the lessons learned from the oil and gas industry in the implementation of international industry practices and how those lessons can enhance ESG practices.

“More scrutiny exists with regard to issues of anti-corruption, protection of the environment and social issues, not only by society but also by investors who are putting pressure on companies to comply and be more responsive,” Cardenas said. “Transparency is part of the solution. However, the rules that govern the protection of the environment or anticorruption practices have been developed for decades.” He highlighted the lessons learned from the cases of Burlington in Ecuador, and Nikko Resources in Bangladesh, were oil and gas companies faced litigation dealing with the violation of industry practices.

Cardenas added the number one thing we can learn from the oil and gas industry is that “practices exist as a consequence of industry expansion. This transnational regulation can be found today at the national level, international treaties, contracts, and arbitration rules.”

Cardenas

The discussion on "Global Nuclear Renaissance: Challenges & Opportunities" underscored the pivotal role of nuclear energy in the contemporary world driven by the twin energy and climate crises.

Frank Chambers, a law student at the University of Houston Law Center and author of “The Nuclear Option,” noted during the panel that "Nuclear energy is the most reliable technology we have today, producing consistent, clean energy."

Lawrence W. Hanson, adjunct professor at UHLC and ABA Program Chair, moderated the panel on “Lawyers, Guns, and Money (and Diesel Fuel):  How US Economic Sanctions, Anti-Corruption, and Cross Border Law Enforcement Affect Energy Trade.”

Hanson underscored the importance of compliance measures in safeguarding national interests and fostering economic analysis such as Electronic Export Information (EEI).

“An EEI is the electronic data filed with the U.S. Census Bureau for tracking exports out of the United States. EEIs are important because they help prevent illegal exports, protect U.S. national security interests, and provide data essential for economic analysis and policymaking,” Hanson said.

Panel

Fireside chat at Space Center Houston

Panel

Energy Professionals Forum: In-House Counsel Perspectives 

Among the notable conference events was a fireside chat at Space Center Houston featuring astronaut Randy Bresnik and Rebecca Bresnik, (LL.M ’09), Acting Deputy Associate General Counsel for International and Space Law for NASA and Adjunct Professor in Space Law at UHLC.

Rebecca Bresnik spoke on the origins of space law and the necessity for cooperation in space exploration. She discussed the difference between airspace and outer space, a crucial distinction with implications for legal jurisdiction and operational boundaries. In the United States, for instance, individuals who breach the threshold of 50 miles above the Earth are honored with astronaut wings, symbolizing their entry into the realm of space exploration.

Bresnik shed light on the intricate framework governing the International Space Station (ISS), a testament to international collaboration.

“We have a robust global framework for the International Space Station. There are 15 countries involved in the ISS,” said Bresnik.  “We both have an intergovernmental agreement that is a multilateral agreement and individual bilateral agreements with each of those partners.”

During the conference, UHLC students had the opportunity to network and learn from energy and legal professionals, including attending a panel with in-house legal professionals sharing their insights from working in the energy industry with students and young lawyers.

“If you’re interested in litigation, don’t think that you won’t be able to transition to in-house work because those positions are there and a lot of the time companies need that background, said Trevor Cox, Senior Legal Counsel for SLB.

“There’s definitely still space for talented lawyers to be working in energy,” said Anna Gryska, Senior Legal Counsel at Woodside Energy. “My best advice is to learn how to be a commercial advisor, not just a legal advisor.”

For more information about the ABA conference, visit the event website here.

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