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Legal Leaders: Shades of green law for Minter Ellison's Duncan McGregor

Legal Leaders: Shades of green law for Minter Ellison's Duncan McGregor

Prominent climate change lawyer and Minter Ellison partner Duncan McGregor has the difficult job of juggling roles on opposites sides fo the environmental fence. He tells Justin Whealing why how…

Prominent climate change lawyer and Minter Ellison partner Duncan McGregor has the difficult job of juggling roles on opposites sides fo the environmental fence. He tells Justin Whealing why how he does it.

POLITICAL CLOUT: Duncan McGregor has been appointed the head of the Federal Government's Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee
Duncan McGregor knows all sides of the environment and climate change debate intimately.

On the one hand, as the head of Minter Ellison's climate change group, he regularly acts for corporate clients caught on the wrong side of environmental law matters. The other professional hat he wears is as the head of the Federal Government's Domestic Offsets Integrity Committee (DOIC) to assess proposed methods for developing and selling carbon credits.

Given that you have an interest in protecting the environment, has it ever been hard to defend a client, Duncan, from a personal and ethical viewpoint?

"No," he says quite matter of factly. "I would have to say honestly and in quite a straight forward way that [that question] has never actually concerned me, and I think that comes down to the quality of the clients that a firm like Minters has," he says."All our clients that I have dealt with in this area have been very concerned about their potential environmental liabilities. I can't off the top off my head think of any circumstance where there has been a deliberate course of conduct or act where someone has got a pipeline and deliberately directed it to the local creek system so they didn't have to pay some environmental license fee or something similar to that."

While McGregor's practice covers quite a wide range of areas, from environmental and town planning issues to helping them prepare for the imminent arrival of an emissions trading scheme, he says that acting for clients in environmental crime matters is one of the more interesting and "pointy" parts of his job.

"A large chunk of my other work involves assisting clients to move ahead with a project or strategy, while with environment crime, you are as far as possible, preventing them from going backwards."

McGregor is often called upon by clients after the environmental authorities having commenced an investigation, typically into liquid discharges or atmosphere and ground contamination.

"There is some hand-holding in that, but it is very valuable work for clients, particularly on the reputational risk side and because the fines are quite significant."

Another area of environmental law that has always interested McGregor is environmental planning.

McGregor says that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father Kevin and become a lawyer, but was not attracted to corporate or finance work. Upon graduation in the mid 1980's, he took a position with Justice Paul Stein of the NSW Land and Environment Court.

While McGregor enjoyed developing his core environmental planning competencies under Stein's tutelage, it was also his interest in other areas, such as mental health issues and prison reform that left an indelible impression on McGregor, with the Minters partner describing him as "a very cool and inspiring person to work for". Like Stein, McGregor has sought to involve himself in varied legal issues, with his appointment to the DOIC and work on behalf of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, where he assisted the organisation to develop a best practice model for indigo participation in the carbon market, two such areas where has stepped outside traditional legal realms.

McGregor joined Minter Ellison in 1989 as a "baby lawyer", charged with building his and the firm's client base in environment planning.

"I like physical things, and while I understand the complexities of finance law and M&A and why people would get engaged in that area, what rocks my boat is the physical side of things," McGregor says. "I like the fact that I can drive down the street and say that is something [a building's construction] I was involved in. "That gives me a great sense of satisfaction."

McGregor has acted for some high profile clients on the environmental planning side, including Westfield and the chemical company ICI.

Minter's man in Canberra

Over the past decade the growing awareness of global warming and the introduction and debate about an ETS in many jurisdictions has ensured environment law is at the cutting edge of social and political discussions.

McGregor is a supporter of an ETS, and he has assisted some of Minter's large corporate clients with regard to the proposed ETS in Australia.

"There was and remains a significant level of uncertainty related to the form of an ETS, so there are some things where lawyers can give clients sensible advice despite that uncertainty and sometimes that uncertainty restricts a lawyer's ability to provide advice," he says. "There is a whole range of things flowing from a possible ETS, including the basics like contract reviews and the drafting of new contracts to ensure pass through clauses are dealt with."

McGregor's status as one of Australia's foremost climate change lawyers was enhanced by his appointment to head the Federal Government's Domestic offset Integrity Committee (DOIC).

Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Minister Greg Combet set up the six-person Committee to assess the environmental integrity of carbon offsets generated under the proposed Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) in October last year.

In late March, the bills to create the CFI were introduced into Parliament, with the DOIC now assisting the Government to assess draft methodologies form carbon abatement projects ahead of the proposed commencement of the CFI in July.

"That definitely adds to the excitement and to the engagement in the area," McGregor says when asked if he enjoys being involved in policy development. "I like being involved with the technology as well It is interesting to understand how wave energy is converted and how it can be used to generate power or how a desalination plant operates or how geo-thermal energy can be developed."

As someone who picked up the rugby boots a few years ago after 25 years on the sidelines, McGregor is also not afraid to throw himself into the political ruck when asked.

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Legal Leaders: Shades of green law for Minter Ellison's Duncan McGregor
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