Plans taking shape for energy, sustainable development policy center at WVU College of Law

By The West Virginia Record | Jun 16, 2011


MORGANTOWN -- Joyce McConnell calls herself "an impatient dean," not out of frustration, but from her desire to create a national reputation for West Virginia University's College of Law as a center for policy research and practice in energy and sustainable resource development.

She came to the College of Law in 1995 as a property law professor (she is Thomas R. Goodwin Professor of Law), but her professional interests have migrated to natural resources, conservation and energy law.

"When I became dean two and a half years ago, I was looking for the most logical place to grow and advance our reputation," McConnell said. She thought that energy and natural resources made sense in a resource-rich state like West Virginia.

Most law schools emphasizing energy, however, focus just on oil and gas. "In fact, my market research shows that most of what is being taught in energy is just smoke and mirrors. No one is offering a serious comprehensive energy curriculum that balances the need for energy with the need for sustainable development."

Thus was born a curriculum plan that will span the complex nature of energy and natural resources law.

"I thought, OK, here's where we can really build our reputation," she said, but added quickly, "but I knew that to be successful, I would have to balance the coal, gas and other resource industries needed for energy production with the environmental concerns that must be addressed for sustainable development of essential natural resources."

McConnell envisions a curriculum guided by the principles of energy development and environmental sustainability. "Our intent is to capture the need for the production and transmission of energy balanced against the sustainability of energy and other natural resources as well as the environment."

To make the vision a reality, McConnell recruited James Van Nostrand to develop the curriculum and to establish a center for energy policy at the WVU College of Law. He comes to WVU from Pace University where he was director of the Energy and Climate Center.

"Jamie's background is phenomenal," McConnell said. "He's been a practicing attorney at leading energy law firms in the Pacific Northwest, so he's familiar with the struggles of energy producers and utilities, but layered upon that is the fact that he is an outstanding academic with a speciality area in environmental law."

McConnell thinks Van Nostrand may be one of the few legal academics in the U.S. who can truly speak to both sides of the energy issue. "I can see that he will be the kind of person who will be open to the concerns of environmentalists, but will be fully accepted at a coal association or chamber of commerce meeting."

The curriculum will also reflect two distinct tracks of legal training: one focused on energy production and transmission, including regulatory and private property law; the other on business transactions, or as McConnell refers to it: "the trade piece," with a recognition of the growing importance of international law to energy.

"The two tracks reflect two very different kinds of legal practice, yet overlaid on that, both have an international perspective," she explained. "Some people think that's crazy," she laughed, but noted that even the domestic coal industry increasingly is involved in international trade.

And McConnell's vision extends beyond curriculum. She hopes to establish an energy policy center at the College of Law that will be part of the Advanced Energy Initiative. "If I can secure funding, I'd like to give the center a physical presence in the new wing of our building.

The Center would be the tangible expression of the principles of energy development and environmental sustainability around which the curriculum is being developed. McConnell wants the center to produce energy policy white papers on various interdisciplinary topics, as well as develop several annually programmed events, such as the first-of-its-kind Energy Moot Court Competition recently held at WVU.

But McConnell's vision remains a balanced one. "I don't want an advocacy model. I want to say: "Here's the problem. Here are different solutions. Here are the implications of these different solutions."

McConnell's vision is rooted in the practicality of the State of West Virginia itself.

"We have a tradition here of hiring really great academics who also have a solid legal practice base. It makes us an unusual law school in that respect," she concluded. "If you look at our grads' practice, many end up in firms involved in natural resources or regulatory agencies. So if we label what we're already doing, make it more robust with many different pathways through the curriculum, and then have a Center with a reputation for national programming, it will change who we are and change who wants to come here, really change our profile."

The Advanced Energy Initiative at West Virginia University coordinates and promotes University-wide research in science, technology and public policy. AEI brings together a network of more than 100 energy researchers from four colleges and more than twenty centers for energy research advances. AEI seeks to enable West Virginia to create new energy technology opportunities though discovery, engagement and innovation.

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