LL.M. Programs in Energy Law

Specialized programs can acquaint lawyers with the unique aspects of this growing industry

Look around at the energy sector, and you'll see growth and rapid change. Global energy demand is expected to grow by a third by 2035, with ninety percent of this growth coming from emerging economies. Meanwhile, the global energy market will be affected by other trends, such as new discoveries of oil and shale gas, and national policies designed to replace aging nuclear reactors and coal plants with renewable resources.

All this growth and change is enticing to many lawyers, and more law schools are beginning to offer energy-focused LL.M. programs. But what can these programs offer lawyers who are working or want to work in this exciting field?

For one, a specialized program can help acquaint lawyers with the unique aspects of the energy sector.

"We're teaching students a series of contexts and relationships which are quite alien to them in many respects," says John Paterson, co-director of the Oil & Gas LL.M. program at the University of Aberdeen.

For example, Paterson says that the scale of energy deals – which are often between large legal actors, and can cover time periods for up to forty years – can be daunting to many lawyers.

"That's longer than contractual arrangements that lawyers are used to dealing with," says Paterson. "It's difficult to see every possible state of the world, and one of the challenges for lawyers working in this field is to negotiate contracts that will give their clients the best possible protection over a very long period of time."

Paterson also says that oil and gas companies are "exposed to a unique set of risks," beginning with the uncertainty about where oil and gas resources can be found.

"You're already dealing with quite significant commercial risk, because you're looking for a resource that's hidden," says Paterson. "You don't know where it is. There are geological techniques to identify where it may be possible to drill and explore for hydrocarbons, but literally, until you drill that hole, you can't tell for certain whether there's anything there."

Along with Aberdeen's program, a handful of other law schools offer oil and gas law LL.M. programs, including the University of Reading, Robert Gordon University, University of Wolverhampton, and the University of Dundee's Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy (CEPMLP).

In fact, Dundee’s CEPMLP offers ten LL.M. programs that each focus on specific aspects of the energy sector, including the LL.M. in Petroleum Taxation and Finance or the LL.M. in International and Comparative Nuclear Law and Policy.

Other LL.M. programs like those at the University of Texas (UT), the University of Houston, University of Sydney, York Osgoode, and the University of Oklahoma also cover energy in a broader sense, including other sources like renewables, nuclear, and hydropower.

The third kind of energy LL.M. program examines both energy and environmental law – a pairing that reflects the significant overlap in these related topics. The schools that offer these programs include Tulane, Calgary, Oregon, Lewis & Clark, University of Queensland, KU Leuven, and the University of Denver.

Despite the thematic overlap with environmental law, energy law has distinct implications, says Melinda Taylor, executive director of the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law at the University of Texas (UT) School of Law.

"The energy courses tend to focus more on negotiating leases, what the respective rights of a surface are versus a mineral rights owner, how the regulations apply to the production of energy, transmission, and generation of energy," says Taylor.

"On the environmental side, it's much more about regulating the externalities of both energy production but lots of other activities - industrial activities, natural resource exploitation, that sort of thing."

"Any kind of energy project, from oil and gas to renewables - wind farms, solar, you name it - has an impact on other natural resources," says Owen Anderson, Eugene Kuntz Chair in Oil, Gas & Natural Resources at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

"The farming industry is certainly affected by any energy project," mentions Anderson as an example. "And water is vital to virtually all of these projects."

"We cover environmental law as it touches on those areas," says Anderson. "But we're not trying to make our graduates into environmental lawyers, per se; more into energy lawyers who understand how environmental law affects them and their industry."

But Anderson says that other intersecting issues are also affecting the energy industry. That’s one reason why Oklahoma launched an LL.M. program covering international energy, natural resources, and indigenous peoples.

"As you go around the world, many of the remaining reserves of natural resources are on native lands, and lands claimed by native peoples," says Anderson. "Some indigenous populations don't have much in the way of legally protected rights to their ancestral lands, but it's really become a human rights issue, so there is a lot of synergy in the three areas."

Melinda Taylor at UT says that understanding this cross-disciplinary synergy is one of the key benefits of doing a specialized energy LL.M. In fact, when designing the course a few years ago, the feedback Taylor received from local companies, law firms, and others in the energy sector emphasized a growing need for lawyers with multidisciplinary knowledge.

"Interdisciplinary exposure was very important to practicing lawyers - to be able to hire someone who had some experience working in a classroom with, say, MBA students, engineering students, or science students," says Taylor. "These fields are very interdisciplinary in nature, and you've got to be able to understand the vocabulary."

John Paterson at Aberdeen agrees. His program tries to incorporate not only energy law, but also the geology, engineering, economics, and politics involved with the energy business.

"Unless you have some grasp of the broader context, you can't understand the legal issues you are talking about," says Paterson.

"In the end, as oil and gas lawyers, what we are trying to deliver is the best service to our clients, whoever they may be,” he says. “We wouldn't really understand what their issues are unless we understand that physical, technical, economic, and political context."

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