Subject Overview

Environmental Law Subject Overview


Environmental and natural resources law encompasses all areas of law dealing with the protection of air, land, water, plants, and animals. There are two aspects to this area. The first, environmental law, focuses on the by-product of human activities, such as manufacturing, creating energy, farming and ranching, and engaging in simple every day activities, such as driving cars, using a lawnmower, or throwing away trash. Environmental laws are designed to regulate the impact of those activities through pollution prevention and cleanup of contaminated areas.

Natural resources laws, on the other hand, regulate the use of limited resources—such as timber, minerals, water, and wildlife—to ensure that use does not exceed the carrying capacity of the resource. Under natural resources laws, for example, ranchers are limited in how and where they graze their cattle on public lands. Manufacturers, cities, and households are limited in how much water they can use. Paper companies are restricted to certain levels and methods of timber production. Additionally, all such activities must accommodate the protection of endangered species.

A technical background in public health, science, or engineering is not required, but it could be beneficial. Although most practitioners do not come in with these backgrounds, attorneys practicing in this field must often immerse themselves in technical information.

The array of required first-year courses included on the accompanying pathway illustrates that the potential work of attorneys in this field is incredibly broad. That being said, all students wishing to pursue a career in this field would benefit from exposure to several foundational matters. First, students must be familiar with the main environmental and natural resources statutes that are covered in Environmental Law and Natural Resource Management Law.

Second, students must understand how to practice in an area of law that is both technical and highly regulated. Environmental attorneys must be familiar with the legislative and regulatory process, and the adjudication process within administrative agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Administrative Law is a particularly critical course, but Legislation is also highly recommended.

Third, because there are a multitude of environmental laws at the federal, state, and local level, attorneys practicing in this field should understand how all these laws work together, and how various government entities regulate the uses of land, including environmental controls. Land Use Management & Control and State & Local Government provide an introduction to these issues.

In addition to these foundational courses, students would also benefit from learning about the law related to industries that tend to cause pollution. For this reason, the attached pathway includes Oil, Gas & Mineral Law and Domestic Energy Law. The attached pathway includes Water Law because the legal rights to surface water and groundwater can have widespread implications in a large variety of contexts that may arise in practice. (As opposed to these water use issues, water pollution is covered in Environmental Law.)

Further, because environmental attorneys often represent companies—or seek to resolve the environmental consequences of companies’ actions—an understanding of business entities can be incredibly beneficial. For this reason, the attached pathway recommends Corporations and Agency & Partnership. Students who wish to practice environmental law in a business setting should consult the Business & Corporate Law Subject Overview for additional guidance.

This overview will note the significance of other courses in subsequent sections where their relevance will be more contextually apparent. The sections that follow cover the four main employment venues available to an environmental attorney: law firms, in-house counsel, government agencies, and public interest groups.

Law Firms and In-House Counsel

Environmental and natural resources attorneys working in private firms can represent companies, groups, and individuals in a variety of different capacities. The main capacities are compliance, transactional work, and dispute resolution—though the three are not mutually exclusive. The scope of an attorney’s work in a law firm is largely based on the type of environmental issues the firm addresses, the type of work in which the firm specializes, and how the firm chooses to divide its practice groups.

The potential work of attorneys employed as in-house counsel for a company falls across much of the same spectrum as those working at law firms. The specific type of work an in-house attorney will handle, however, is based on the company’s particular business endeavors. Of course, unlike law firms, in-house counsel will never represent plaintiffs taking action against the company.


Companies need assistance to ensure that their business practices and endeavors do not violate the numerous laws that govern their conduct. They rely on attorneys to navigate and interpret the complex web of applicable environmental statutes and regulations. Companies may need assistance at the planning stage because they want to engage in a particular action or venture in the future and need to ensure that their approach comports with the law. Sometimes companies’ business ventures require them to obtain permits from government agencies. Environmental attorneys regularly assist companies to navigate the potential complexities that could arise in the permit process.

In other instances, companies seek the advice of environmental attorneys because something that negatively impacts the environment has taken place as a result of their operations or on land that they own. When this happens, companies must comply with any reporting obligations. Typically, businesses will not report these incidents for altruistic reasons or out of a sense of civic duty; rather, they want to make the most financially sound decision that the law permits them to make.

When an environmental disaster does occur, companies also need assistance navigating the cleanup process. Environmental attorneys must counsel companies on what needs to be done to ensure that their cleanup efforts comport with the law.

Transactional Work

In the course of doing business, companies regularly encounter issues that concern environmental and natural resources matters. For instance, a real estate development company may want to buy or sell land that has been contaminated or otherwise environmentally compromised. Perhaps a company seeks to merge with or acquire another company involved in environmentally sensitive operations (or embroiled in an ongoing dispute with a state or federal agency, which highlights the importance of due diligence). Further still, a landowner may desire to lease property and wants to ensure that the lessee assumes as much responsibility as possible for actions taking place on the land which could negatively impact the environment.

When companies contemplate such ventures, they rely on attorneys with expertise in environmental law to assess the environment-based implications of the agreement, help negotiate the terms, and then draft agreements that account for all the environment-related issues that may surface, including liability matters.

Attorneys engaged in transactional and planning work must understand how to negotiate and draft agreements. For this reason, the attached pathway recommends either Contract Building Blocks or Contract Negotiations & Drafting. The required property courses and the recommended real estate courses have wide utility in this practice field since environmental and natural resources issues regularly arise in the context of real estate transactions. Professional Skills in Property and the advanced Transaction Skills–Real Estate course can also be beneficial for the substantial portion of agreements in this field that touch on real estate matters.

Dispute Resolution

Disputes that concern environmental matters happen all the time. For instance, the above discussion noted how environmental attorneys are regularly called on to assess whether a company must report an environmentally sensitive incident. What happens after a significant violation is reported—or discovered independently? Environmental attorneys must help to resolve these disputes.

Government agencies do not have the resources or desire to litigate every violation in court. For this reason, attorneys often interface with agency officials to negotiate a means of resolving the dispute. Among other outcomes, the resolution could impose monetary penalties or it could require extensive cleanup efforts. (The language of the transactional agreements mentioned previously could also impact the resolution.)

Because agencies use negotiation and other alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods to come to settlement agreements with members of the regulated community, the accompanying pathway recommends the Alternative Dispute Resolution course. Disputes, however, cannot always be resolved through ADR. In such cases, attorneys must defend their clients in court against alleged civil or criminal violations of environmental and natural resources laws.

The above discussion has focused on law firms retained by companies in a variety of capacities that pertain to environmental and natural resources law. Law firms, however, can also be retained by individuals and groups opposed to the actions of these companies. For instance, law firms may represent a group opposed to a permit, or firms may represent plaintiffs in a civil action who are pursuing a toxic tort claim or in citizen suits permitted by environmental and natural resources statutes.

Attorneys handling such disputes must understand all stages of the litigation process. The litigation courses listed on the attached pathway are meant for students interested in this aspect of practice—certainly there are many environmental lawyers who do not handle litigation. Additionally, STCL Houston’s Criminal Process Clinic/Academic Internship includes the possibility of interning with the Harris County Attorney Office’s Environmental Crimes Division.

Government Agencies

Many federal, state, and local government agencies entirely or partially address matters that concern environmental or natural resources law. Some of the central agencies include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office. The extent of an attorney’s responsibilities within an agency is based on the scope of the agency’s oversight authority regarding environmental and natural resources law.

Agencies are often on the flip side of the practice capacities discussed above for attorneys working in law firms or in-house at a company. As such, the above discussion of law firms and in-house counsel alludes to many of the responsibilities of those working in these agencies as well as the requisite skills that would benefit attorneys working for an agency.

For instance, agencies handle permit hearings or civil enforcement actions before administrative law judges or in court, and agencies negotiate settlements between parties for violations of environmental laws.

In addition to these responsibilities, agencies also interpret statutes and write regulations to implement statutes. Additionally, agencies must provide guidance on their interpretations of the law and counsel companies on how they can be compliant with their environment-related obligations. Agency representatives may also testify before legislative bodies. Agencies with prosecutorial functions, such as the U.S. Department of Justice and the Harris County Attorney’s Office, often have departments dedicated to prosecuting environmental crimes.

As noted above, STCL Houston’s academic internship placements include the possibility of interning with the Harris Country Attorney Office’s Environmental Crimes Division. Additionally, through the Government Process Clinic/Academic Internship, students can seek to arrange internships with local, state, or federal government agencies that address environment-related matters.

Public Interest Groups

There are numerous non-governmental organizations that advocate exclusively or partially for issues that concern protecting the environment and preserving natural resources. Examples include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Texas Land Conservancy, and Galveston Bay Foundation.

The missions of these organizations may be global, national, regional, or local. The scope of their activities may include assisting groups or communities in protesting permits or seeking an injunction, reporting violations of environmental and natural resources law, pursuing toxic tort claims or citizen suits permitted by environmental or natural resources statutes, advocating for legislative changes by drafting proposed legislation, and advocating for regulatory changes by drafting proposed administrative rules or providing comments on draft rules proposed by an agency.

Public interest groups do not always have the capacity to litigate complicated and expensive disputes. When they do, however, they may retain outside counsel to litigate the case or assist their own attorneys.

In addition to the foundational courses listed in the introduction, students can use STCL Houston’s Public Interest Clinic/Academic Internship to arrange for a placement at a public interest group. If students interested in a career in public interest law wish to acquire the knowledge and skills that pertain to the dispute resolution process—which may or may not be relevant to the scope of a particular group’s mission—they should consider the ADR and litigation-related courses listed on the accompanying pathway.

For additional information, please review the Public Interest Law Subject Overview.