University of Wyoming Professor Educates the Next Generation about the Legal Side of Energy and the Environment

The lawyer examines laws around energy, water and animals through an interdisciplinary and human lens

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Nov 04, 2022

By Sarah Scoles

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Coal is big business in Wyoming. In addition to providing jobs, this part of the fossil-fuel industry has contributed significantly to the state’s total revenue. But it’s also a smaller business than it used to be, with production having plunged nearly 50% between 2010 and 2020, in part because of the national transition to using more renewable energy.

Such a large economic change is never easy or an unfettered good, even if it’s environmentally positive. Certain governmental actions, though, can ease the transition. Economic policies can put short-term salve on the sting, push the energy industry forward in the long-term and encourage economic diversification.

University of Wyoming researchers investigated those kinds of policies in a study published in the journal Environmental Law. In this work, professor Temple Stoellinger and her colleagues Tara Righetti and Robert Godby laid out how four Rocky Mountain states, including Wyoming, have reacted to or resisted coal-plant shutterings. Their goal was to understand how resistance to energy transition plays out and what policies can help with that shift.

This sort of study is Stoellinger’s bailiwick. As a lawyer and associate professor at UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Law, Stoellinger, 41, schools the next generation of energy and environmentally focused lawyers. Her work sits at the intersection of energy and environmental policy, with focuses including energy, wildlife and public land law, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—all with an eye toward practical, innovative ways to make decisions about everything from species conservation to energy generation to minerals.

Previously, Stoellinger worked as a natural resource advisor to former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and as legal counsel for Shell.

Temple Stoellinger, an associate professor at the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Law, schools the next generation of energy and environmentally focused lawyers. (Courtesy photo from Temple Stoellinger)

The Wyoming Truth recently spoke to Stoellinger about her research and the issues facing the natural resources legal sector. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

How did you and your collaborators get the idea for the paper about coal plants and energy-transition policies?

Stoellinger: We were looking at the different state approaches to addressing the changes that are happening in the energy market and the climate space. And we’re just trying as scholars to think about what was leading to those different policies that we’re seeing emerging across four states right in the Rocky Mountain West.

In this paper, and in your work in general, you don’t consider the law just in a vacuum: You look at it as it relates economics, policy and social issues—different variables that come together to form a legal landscape. Why is it important to bring all those things to the table?

Stoellinger: There’s so many angles to any type of natural resource challenge. There’s an economic angle, there’s social angles, there are certainly the scientific angles as well. So I think any natural resource lawyer has to consider the full sphere of the issues to really be able to bring appropriate legal resources to the table to address that challenge. To me, doing interdisciplinary work is just a natural piece of doing environment and natural resources law. You have to look holistically at the situation to really be able to address it from all sides. Plus, I think it’s more fun.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing the natural resources legal sector in Wyoming right now?

Stoellinger: One of the reasons I love being a natural resource professor sitting in Wyoming is that we have a front-row seat to national issues. I, in particular, work on a lot of wildlife issues. Thinking about the long-term conservation of sage grouse is really interesting. We continue to look at carnivore issues, including future delisting of grizzly bears.  

Also on the wildlife front, I’m thinking about conservation of migratory animals, particularly in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and thinking about private lands conservation as it relates to species conservation as well.

On the energy side, there’s a lot of work being done in terms of new technologies. You’re thinking about hydrogen energy, carbon capture and sequestration, even nuclear energy with the TerraPower project. It’s always exciting to be a natural resource attorney in Wyoming, but maybe now in particular, as we look at some of the emergence of some advanced energy technologies and how they can be utilized in Wyoming.

How do you think about balancing conservation and environmental protection with development?

Stoellinger: Just like the word that you shared: balance. It’s understanding the impacts—both positive economic impacts and maybe negative ecological impacts—and just trying to find a middle ground if possible.

You do a lot of work involving the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). What is that piece of legislation?

Stoellinger: It’s a federal law that requires federal agencies to analyze and disclose their environmental impacts to the public before they make a final decision about an action they plan to take. So it’s an application of the carpenter’s rule of “measure twice, cut once.” You’re contemplating impacts of considered federal actions and disclosing alternatives to those actions. Then, you’re letting the public see that information and get a chance to weigh in and participate and share their thoughts with the ultimate federal agency that’s making the decisions. I’m very excited I get to teach NEPA this semester.

What sorts of issues, particularly in the natural resource realm, do your students find most engaging?

Stoellinger: My classes are a mix of Wyoming residents and students from across the country, but it seems like we have a pretty strong student body that comes from Colorado as well. They’re largely Western kids with Western interests. So they’re interested in wildlife law and policy, energy development, including traditional and also renewable energy, and then they’re always interested in talking about water rights, water law and water allocation.

What’s something that people either misunderstand or would be surprised to know about those in your field? 

Stoellinger: People think all lawyers are in courtrooms. And that’s not necessarily true, maybe particularly in the natural resource space.

I had to serve on a jury a couple weeks ago, which was my first time having a trial-court experience. It wasn’t being a lawyer: It was sitting on a jury.

I was annoyed to have been selected, but it was actually a really amazing experience. It’s a great educational experience. Just sitting in on the jury deliberation process was heartening. You see people from all walks of life across our community coming together and ultimately having to make a unanimous decision. And through the conversation, nobody got angry. There were no raised voices. It was just a very civil and polite conversation, even though there were disagreements.

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