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Q&A: Ex-Environmental Defense Fund GC on the pandemic’s impact on green advocacy

Sebastien Malo  

Sebastien Malo  

(Reuters) - Reuters recently spoke to Jim Tripp, a long-time general counsel and then senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), who retired in early 2019, about the ramifications of the pandemic’s economic impact on the scope of future environmental lawsuits by green groups and on legal strategies they might adopt to forge ahead.

The 45-year EDF veteran specializes in water and energy law and represented the group in Montreal Protocol negotiations, an international treaty to protect the ozone layer first agreed in 1987.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
REUTERS: Are some environmental groups that litigate shielded from the economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic?
TRIPP: They’re all going to be impacted. Nonprofits, including environmental organizations, are dependent on the largesse of individuals and foundations for most of their revenues.
They have experienced substantial increases in donations over the last 10 years and could have anticipated that kind of increase to continue in 2020 until the pandemic hit.
Large and small environmental groups may see a decline in their revenues this year comparable to what they witnessed during the 2009-09 financial crisis, possibly in the 15-20% range.
REUTERS: How reliant are such groups on these foundation and individual donations to keep going?
TRIPP: They’re highly dependent since these are their primary source of revenues. Well-managed and larger organizations may have endowments and rainy-day funds that could make up for declines in revenues.
REUTERS: How did environmental advocacy groups that litigate deal with drops in revenue in 2008-2009?
TRIPP: It may have affected the amount of money that an organization was willing to spend on outside counsel.
One offset during the financial crisis was that, at least in New York City, several major law firms offered some of their associates an opportunity to work for environmental and other non-profits for a year, and the firm would pay them at the non-profit level, not at the level they would have been paid if they had stayed on as associates, with the idea that these associates would return to their firms after the year. It could happen again.
REUTERS: How may environmental groups’ ability to litigate be impacted by the current economic downturn?
TRIPP: A serious economic decline certainly will affect the amount and the kind of litigation that such groups can do.
It may make it more difficult for any organization to initiate complex, time-consuming litigation. However, counter to this, the amount of litigation that environmental organizations decide to pursue is also a function of how seriously harmful the environmental policies of the administration in power in the federal government are, as they are today.
REUTERS: Is a decline in petitions for rulemaking in the cards?
TRIPP: A petition for rulemaking is a major undertaking. It’s also typically an affirmative strategy in contrast to commenting on regulations or seeking to stop an agency from doing something destructive of public health and the environment.
The process usually requires an organization to marshal extensive legal, scientific and other resources to make a case. I would think there would be a natural tendency to postpone a new initiative in that regard when you’re unsure what your revenues will be.

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