In-house energy and resources lawyers were asked to consider the future of their industry and the long-term responsibilities of their organisations during a specialised think-tank at the 2010 ACLA Conference.
Deanna Constable, the general counsel at Mitsubishi Development, lead the think-tank discussion on mining, energy and resources, project management and construction this morning (11 November).
She introduced delegates to a discussion on population growth, water, energy and transport.
"Australia's resources are finite. Do we produce to just meet current demand? Do we have any sustainability principles that underpin how we produce and at what level we produce?" were some of the questions Constable posed to the audience.
Constable also asked the gathered in-house lawyers present whether their companies look outside the bottom line and are guided by any general philosophy when it comes to operating as a responsible corporate entity
"What about future generations. There is perhaps 150 years of thermal coal left in Australia. What happens in 150 years? Are we thinking about those issues, are our organisations taking those things into account?"
Constable further commented: "When we make profits from the mining and energy booms, do we invest it in things that are to benefit the future generations, or are we all about getting the dollar today?"
As the discussion turned to the influence and role an in-house legal department can have, Sam Barbaro, senior legal counsel at Western Power, commented that in-house lawyers are often being asked to do new and inventive things that they may not have done in the past.
"From our perspective, it is whether or not we have the power to do these things and whether or not we need statutory amendments to facilitate change," Barbaro said.
Barbaro also commented on the difficulty of working with increased levels of regulation and scrutiny regarding environment issues. "There is also a growing trend around the world about environmental aspects [of work]. In the past, if we needed a new transmission line, we could go through the national forest, but we can't do that now. That has a cost and people don't realise that. I agree, we need to conserve our forests, but by going around the forest you might increase the cost of a power line three or four fold."
The lawyers in the room also showed that they are embracing new technologies. A member of the in-house team at Siemens commented on the innovative changes in the uses of energy already occurring.
"I would like to share something that is really exciting in the energy space," the Siemens lawyer said. "The way that I understand it, is that energy will change significantly over the next 10-20 years, partly through the idea of the "ecar" [electronic car]....During the day you will park your ecar at work or at the supermarket and the battery of your ecar will provide a storage facility for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, which are in peaks and troughs depending on where the sun is or the wind is blowing.
"So what is going to happen is that your ecar battery will take electricity... and your car will be transmitting energy back into the grid, which will then stabilise the grid, making solar and wind and alternative energy much more attractive."
Other issues canvassed included the merits of public and private ownership of transport infrastructure and energy utilities, the legal aspects involved in gaining private investment access to energy bodies, the competing uses of water and the opportunities arising from the lifting of the ban on uranium mining in Western Australia.
"Each one of these energy sources has its own paradox," Constable said. "Thermal coal has a carbon issue, uranium has the Greens and other members of the public concerned about weapon use or concerned about health issues from exposure, wind and solar are not reliable base load power sources and have other issues associated with them."
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