Energy Law LL.M.s: A Closer Look

With global energy consumption going up—not to mention the burgeoning presence of renewables—LL.M. programs specializing in Energy Law can give lawyers a step up in navigating the complex and ever-evolving industry.

With an ever-rising global population and limited resources, energy has always been a challenging and dynamic sector. The International Energy Outlook for 2016 projects significant growth in worldwide energy demand, with total world consumption expected to increase almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2040.

This trajectory also includes fast-paced developments in the exploitation of energy sources, from traditional exploration and production of fossil fuels to more recent mining extraction methods like hydraulic fracturing (or 'fracking'), as well as renewables like wind, hydro, and solar power.

The growth has in turn spurred the proliferation of Energy Law LL.M. programs, many of which have veered away from focusing solely on oil and gas laws.. The University of Aberdeen, for instance, launched its Energy Law LL.M. roughly five years ago partly in response to demand, but also to diversify its offerings in line with the transformation of the energy sector.

“This is because North Sea oil is declining and other forms of energy are now rising in importance,” says Tina Hunter, director of Aberdeen’s Centre for Energy Law. “And this has been particularly true after the EU Renewable Energy Directive in 2009 and Energy Efficiency Directive in 2013.”

Likewise, Oregon’s Lewis & Clark Law School has been expanding its offerings to prepare new lawyers; in 2012, it created the Green Energy Institute, an organization focused on developing policies for the energy transition that also offers fellowship positions to LL.M. students.

Environmental Law, Natural Resources Law, and Energy Law LL.M. has also increased the scope of its courses to including topics like Renewable Energy Law and Policy, Renewable Energy Project Development and Finance, and Solar and Wind Law.

In the UK, the biggest challenge facing energy lawyers is the move away from oil and gas, and how this will be tackled alongside the requirements under Maximising the Economic Recovery (MER) UK, a government strategy that aims to maximize the economic recovery of UK petroleum. “This has provided major challenges for both industry and practice,” Turner says.

Picking the right Energy LL.M. program

There have been a handful of well-established Energy Law LL.M. programs, historically focused on the oil and gas sector; in the US, Texas has always been a hub for the industry, making the University of Texas School of Law and University of Houston Law Center popular choices for LL.M. students looking to focus on the US market.

Outside the US, the University of Dundee has also been a long-time player in the space. Other law schools offering similar LL.M. programs include Queen Mary University of London, the University of Groningen and the University of Calgary.

Programs tend to have a focus on their particular region, says Aberdeen’s Tina Hunter; LL.M.s in the US are very much centered on US law and operations, while the UK tends to be more globally- or EU-focused. Scandinavian programs can also be unique; the University of Oslo has an oil and gas LL.M., but it focuses almost solely on the Norwegian market, which has its own particular system.

Law schools have typically always been on the lag in adapting to changes in the market and legislative environment, but there are pressing issues that have made their way into course offerings. Some of the most important environmental law issues facing lawyers these days include pollution, water quality, public lands, international climate change, biodiversity, and food, says Lucy Brehm, assistant director of Lewis and Clark’s Energy LL.M.

Climate change and how to respond to it has also been a huge topic, adds Owen Anderson, professor and oil and gas scholar at the University of Texas.

“Another is human rights in areas that are populated by indigenous communities who have in the past been cut out of the benefits of energy development but have suffered most of the adverse impacts of it,” he says.

“That’s a very big deal.”

[See the Top 10 LL.M. Programs for Energy Law]

But with the proliferation of new programs—some of which include courses that cover such topics ignored by traditional Oil and Gas LL.M. programs—professors also advise prospective students to do their research on the school’s curriculum and faculty.

“Energy became a sexy thing again this past decade, and a lot of schools purport to have strong energy LL.M.s,” Anderson says. “But if you look at their curriculum and faculty, you’ll find in most of those cases the professors are either adjuncts or visiting lecturers.” Hunter agrees, noting that there are a limited number of academics in the area, so some schools are struggling to attract well-established scholars.

Post-LL.M. job prospects in the competitive energy landscape

Lewis & Clark LL.M. graduates have landed jobs in a diverse spectrum of fields, including private practice, nonprofits, utilities, academia, government agencies and the military, says Lucy Brehm.

”Environmental law has been a steady source of employment because of its vast presence on local, state and federal levels,” she adds. “Policy changes at the federal level will certainly have an impact, and federal funding for the EPA and state environmental agency programs may dry up; but we expect that renewable energy, water law (which is mostly state law), and citizen suits will continue to be important areas for lawyers.”

In Texas, one recent change in the landscape is that those who have graduated with an LL.M. degree from a US school are now able to sit for the state bar exam—a qualification that will undoubtedly push up enrollment for schools in and around the state. Oklahoma University also has an oil and gas LL.M. whose graduates often end up in Texas for post-graduate employment.

“Those students aren’t coming here necessarily because of energy; they’re coming for the Texas bar,” UT’s Owen Anderson says. “But if you’re going to take Texas bar, energy is definitely going to be a section, so they’re undoubtedly going to encounter oil, gas, wind and other energy issues throughout their practice.” 

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