UNC Law School's Environmental Center Now Brought To You By Duke Energy | News

UNC Law School's Environmental Center Now Brought To You By Duke Energy


Also brought to you by Duke Energy.
  • Also brought to you by Duke Energy.
What is currently called the UNC Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources will soon be renamed the UNC School of Law Center for Climate, Energy, Environment and Economics (CE3). 

What's in a name? In this case, a few things. According to director Victor Flatts, the new name "reflects the center’s expanded mission to become the nation’s first law and policy center specifically devoted to the intersection of climate, energy law, environmental law and economic development." 

But also: the reorientation of UNC's environmental law center is being funded by Duke Energy, which last year pleaded guilty to several environmental crimes — nine, in fact — and was fined $102 million for illegally discharging coal ash across the state. Perhaps you are aware of this

The very same Duke Energy that engages in fifteen-year-legal battles to avoid paying EPA fines has committed $200,000 in funding to the UNC School of Law for the 2016 calendar year. The CE3 Center anticipates that it will invest another $200,000 in both 2017 and 2018.  

Flatt, who played a large role in developing the center in 2009, will stay on as director. 

"I understand how, on the surface, this may leave a strange impression," Flatt tells the INDY. "I think it's important to note that first of all, this grant funding doesn’t have any strings attached to it. But frankly, yes, I think we all had to really think through some questions: What are we doing, what does this mean, how could this investment impact the work we do, how will it impact our partners, including the SELC [the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has mounted multiple environmental legal battles against Duke Energy on behalf of North Carolinians]? Ultimately we decided that the opportunity to educate our students about the environment and energy in a new way was a really good chance to take." 

Prior to the Duke Energy gift, Flatt says, the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources was operating on "shoestring" funding — approximately $40,000 in 2015. With its coffers quintupled, it will now hire a permanent staff member to assist with planning projects, grants, programs, workshops and seminars. 

Flatt says that, before, the general focus of the center was putting law students to work examining issues relating to environmental law, with a particular focus on climate change adaptation. Looking at zoning and building codes that could be changed to help coastal cities adapt to rising sea levels, for example, or researching how to identify and assist disempowered or racial-minority groups in dealing with climate change. 

"We'll still be doing things like that, but now we have the ability to think bigger and target the full intersection of policy," Flatt says. "We can look at longer-term issues and think about how our current energy laws are maladaptive to the changing environment. Our thought was that it is getting harder and harder to disentangle energy issues from environmental issues. We can't keep having these conversations separately; it's too difficult to move forward that way. And I think the Duke foundation — because they don't know what the world will look like in ten years — also bought into that idea. Personally, my view is that unless we engage with the private sector in some way it is only going to get harder to get anywhere on these issues." 

As for Duke Energy's record of environmental recklessness, Flatt doesn't have much to add: "They pled guilty and were fined. And hopefully they won't be violating environmental laws going forward. And as the largest electricity distribution company in the country, they need to be in the conversation about renewables and moving away from greenhouse gases." 

Frank Holleman at the SELC puts a finer point on the contradiction of the arrangement. 

"It's ironic that a company whose operating businesses are on criminal probation for environmental crimes is partnering with a law school for its environmental law center," Holleman says. "Even while they're announcing this center, Duke Energy continues to pollute the state's waters with coal ash pollution and refuses to remove its coal ash from unlined pits on seven rivers and in seven communities across the state. We're concerned about what message this announcement sends to UNC’s law students and the people of North Carolina. We hope the university will show leadership by calling on Duke Energy to remove all its coal ash from unlined pits sitting in groundwater next to rivers in this state and move it to safe, dry, lined storage away from our drinking water supplies."

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