Even though it could idle some lawyers, partners from Baker Botts, Jackson Walker and Haynes and Boone—all Texas-based firms with corporate oil and gas clients—voiced tentative support this week for legislation that would tax carbon emissions while gutting environmental regulation.
They were reacting to news that ExxonMobil, Shell and BP had decided to back a carbon tax proposal outlined earlier this year by a coalition led by former Secretary of State James Baker. The energy companies published an ad in The Wall Street Journal this week to announce their support for Baker’s carbon tax ideas.
“I think it’s incredible to have Exxon’s support,” said Megan Berge, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker Botts, who stressed she was only speaking for herself and not any particular client or for Baker, who is also a partner at the firm.
“I see the endorsement of this by the world’s largest gas producers as game-changing,” said Amy Baird, a Jackson Walker partner in Houston.
But Baird added: “No question, it would mean less work for litigators.”
Baker and his coalition, composed largely of former Republican White House administration officials, introduced in February a proposal to have Congress authorize a carbon tax that would provide cash dividends to Americans. In exchange, the plan would roll back most of the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to police emissions.
Such a policy switch could have big implications for lawyers who counsel clients on regulatory matters and clash in court battles related to the Clean Air Act.
“It will be less work for all those people,” Baird predicted.
“If all there is to dispute is the level of emissions, that’s a heck of lot easier for the government to enforce,” she said.
If the tax is set high enough, Baird said, both emissions and litigation could decline in the long run, as utility companies and their consumers simply rely less on carbon producing fuels.
But there’s no consensus that lawyers would lose out.
“I don’t see it as a lawyer unemployment act,” said Baker Botts’ Berge. “It might un-employ some lawyers, but the work would shift to different arenas.”
At this early stage, particularly since the embattled Trump administration has issued zero support for a carbon tax, determining precisely which lawyers would win work and which would lose as a result of a carbon tax “is more than a little bit speculative,” Berge added.
Diana Liebmann, a partner at Haynes and Boone, stressed that support for the proposal would hinge on its details. And even if demand for some legal work were to decline, she offered a silver lining: “A new group of lawyers would deal with the tax credits,” she predicted.
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