Covington & Burling office in D.C. Photo Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi/ ALM

Kevin Poloncarz, a well-known environmental and energy lawyer in California, has joined Covington & Burling’s San Francisco office as a partner in its energy industry group. 

Poloncarz has spent the past six years at Paul Hastings, a firm he joined in early 2012 after leaving Bingham McCutchen, where he had co-chaired that now-defunct firm’s climate-change practice. Poloncarz said he was drawn to the opportunity to help Covington build out its recently established cross-disciplinary clean energy and climate industry group in California. 

“Covington [is] renown for regulatory expertise in D.C. on federal matters, and that was very much a draw for me,” said Poloncarz about his new firm, which opened a Los Angeles office in 2015. “I do environmental and energy work, and it is regulatory in nature, and so I really felt that was a great fit between my practice and the firm.” 

Poloncarz specializes in air quality, climate change and clean energy issues, and represents primarily energy sector clients in regulatory, litigation, legislative and transactional matters.

The environment law specialist moved to California nearly two decades ago when he was hired as an associate at San Francisco-based Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, a predecessor to Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. In 2000, that firm merged with New York-based Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, and Poloncarz moved to Farella Braun + Martel, where he made partner in 2006.

After seven years at Farella Braun, where he led the firm’s air quality and climate change practice, Poloncarz jumped to Bingham McCutchen in late 2007. After a little more than four years at Bingham McCutchen, Poloncarz was hired by Paul Hastings in early 2012.

Poloncarz has been deeply involved in legal and regulatory developments to reduce carbon emissions under California law and the federal Clean Air Act. As a kid growing up in a steel family in the suburbs of New York City, Poloncarz said he suffered from a respiratory illness caused by a steel mill near his home. His condition significantly improved when the plant closed in 1985, but Poloncarz had to see his parents cope with economic consequences caused by the loss of their jobs.

Kevin Poloncarz.

“When I ended up in private practice, I was really drawn to this whole set of issues of how you solve this problem, improve their [quality of life], and at the same time avoid undue economic harm to industry,” said Poloncarz, adding that his life experience and subsequent legal education have inspired him to use the law as a way to address environmental problems such as air pollution. 

Poloncarz has played a key role in defending the Obama administration’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, arguing on behalf of a coalition of nine major utilities in an en banc proceeding before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He also represents another coalition of four major utilities that in June filed a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to undo greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and trucks.

“Because the federal government isn’t providing leadership to address climate change, the efforts are all moving to the states, who want to take action,” said Poloncarz about the current political landscape regarding climate policy.

On Thursday, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation released a proposal that would freeze a rule mandating that automakers work to make cars substantially more fuel efficient. The change would also revoke California’s waiver to set its own rules under the Clean Air Act, rules that 13 other states and the District of Columbia also follow, Poloncarz explained. 

“The relationship between California as the lead in this area and the federal government has never been more strained than it is today,” Poloncarz said. 

In a statement announcing Poloncarz’s arrival Wednesday, Andrew Jack, co-chair of Covington’s energy industry group, said that “over the past decade, [Poloncarz] has built a prominent, multifaceted practice advising clients on a range of pivotal air quality and climate issues that are driving the transformation of the electric power industry and the promotion of electric and other advanced vehicles.” Jack noted that Poloncarz’s practice ”complements the firm’s strengths in environmental and energy regulation, litigation and policy matters.”

Covington said that Poloncarz is the 10th lawyer it has hired for its energy industry group in San Francisco. Firmwide, Covington has more than 150 lawyers from a variety of practices working within its energy industry group. The firm’s San Francisco office, which opened in 1999, now has 78 lawyers.

In April, Covington welcomed aboard Suzanne Bell, a former technology transactions partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, to expand in the Bay Area. Bell is based in the firm’s Silicon Valley office in Redwood City, an outpost that it opened a decade ago after adding a team of lawyers from now-defunct Heller Ehrman.