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Profile: Deacons' Elisa de Wit

Profile: Deacons' Elisa de Wit

Elisa de Wit heads the environment practice at Deacons' Melbourne office. She has travelled to Reykjavik to undertake environmental assessment and now awaits an onslaught of work if the CPRS is passed in Australia. She speaks to Kate Gibbs

Elisa de Wit heads the environment practice at Deacons' Melbourne office. She has travelled to Reykjavik to undertake environmental assessment and now awaits an onslaught of work if the CPRS is passed in Australia. She speaks to Kate Gibbs.

What does your average day involve?

It is fair to say that the work is very varied. Today, as an example, I have largely been tied up redrafting a contract between a landfill owner and a landfill gas operator to take on board the implications of the introduction of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Tomorrow, I may be taking a call from a client who has had a spill into a watercourse from a construction site.

The environmental practice covers a huge range of practice areas, including advice, litigation, due diligence, and commercial drafting. Most often, we are assisting clients to obtain the necessary environmental approvals and licences to commence or carry on their operations.

A large part of our client base comes from the extractive industry and waste management sector, so we may be assisting clients to obtain planning permits, work approvals, waste discharge licences or work authorities to construct new quarries or landfills (or as with one current project, approvals for both so that once the land has been quarried, landfilling can commence).

A large part of our practice is also assisting our clients to deal with environmental incidents, whether that involves initial dialogue with the Environment Protection Authority, attending interviews under caution or ultimately, representing our clients in court if they are prosecuted.

We also provide a support role to other parts of the firm, such as our commercial, property and construction departments, assisting them on environmental issues (such as contaminated land liability) that may arise on corporate or property transactions and projects.

My other hat is national leader of the firm's climate change practice, which has been keeping me very busy of late, particularly given all of the interest and uncertainty about whether Australia will introduce an emissions trading scheme. Given our recent announcement of a merger with Norton Rose, who has one of the leading climate change practices in the world, we have seen increased interest from both existing and new clients in this area. Through a referral from Norton Rose, we recently concluded a transaction on behalf of BP, who have agreed to purchase Australian emissions units generated from tree plantations from Carbon Conscious. My hunch is that this is only the start of things to come, particularly if the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is passed in November.

You have worked in the United Kingdom, how has this experience impacted the way you practice?

Working overseas gave me a greater perspective on a number of issues, however, interestingly, very often issues that are relevant in an environmental practice are fundamentally the same - which is to ensure appropriate protection of the environment.

As part of your work you advise on climate change litigation. Has this changed in recent months?

The increase in climate change litigation in Australia has most recently been driven through proponents seeking development approval for coastal developments. For example, last year we advised Stockland on a residential project at Point Lonsdale, where one of the main issues in the proceedings was the impact of climate change, and in particular, the impact of sea level rise. Extensive modelling work was required to demonstrate that the project could withstand a sea level rise of 0.8m. Since this decision, there have been a number of other tribunal decisions in Victoria (and elsewhere across Australia), which have examined the impact of climate change on new coastal development.

How has environment legal advice changed in the past year?

Due to the drop off in corporate and property transactions, we have seen less involvement in due diligences and contract review. However, we have perhaps seen more instructions in relation to incident management, perhaps as a result of tightening budgets, and less desire on the part of clients to simply "cop a fine". So, for example, for a number of clients we have undertaken legislative review exercises to enable clients to keep on top of their legal obligations and ensure that no breaches are committed exposing them to penalties.

Have you seen a shift in the way lawyers work as a result of the GFC?

Fortunately, for our practice, we have not been directly impacted too much by the GFC. Perhaps this has been cushioned slightly by the increase in our climate change work. If anything, the GFC has probably prompted practitioners to expand out their area of expertise, and devote more time to keeping up to speed with the latest developments.

What are the biggest challenges facing lawyers in your practice area?

Keeping on top of latest developments. This is particularly the case in the climate change arena, where there are constant developments at all levels, such as state, Federal and internationally.

What does the next year look like for lawyers practising in your area?

I believe that environmental issues will only continue to grow in prominence, and of course, climate change is probably on the cusp of taking off in Australia, especially if the CPRS is passed. So, I would say "very busy"!

What is the most interesting deal you've worked on?

Whilst I was practising in the United Kingdom, I advised on the environmental assessment being undertaken for a new aluminium smelter in Iceland, which involved me travelling to Reykjavik on a number of occasions, which was probably more fun than interesting! But the most recent interesting deal would have to be the one we have just completed for BP involving the purchase of Australian emissions units from Carbon Conscious.

If you were not a lawyer, you'd be...?

A landscape architect or gardener!

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