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UGA environmental law professor tackles complex climate issues

Two men converse in button downs.

Water has always been an undercurrent in Adam Orford’s life and career. The attorney practically grew up on Alaskan seas. With a penchant for music and languages, his career might have branched a dozen ways, but he now serves as UGA’s environmental law professor. 

And it’s all almost by accident. 

Needing marketable skills after graduating with a degree in Italian, he applied to law school while teaching English in Sicily. He thought he would try to become a tax lawyer, but became interested in other topics.

“I fell into environmental law in my second year at Columbia Law,” said Orford. 

It was 2004, and the school had no environmental law professor. Orford applied to be a student editor at the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law because he cared about the Exxon Valdez oil spill in his home state of Alaska. 

“The first article that I worked on was about trans-boundary groundwater management, a kind of groundwater resource management where two or three jurisdictions are involved, their lines drawn across an aquifer,” he shared. It’s a niche of water law with which Georgians are quite familiar—the state was embroiled in ACF water litigation for decades. “It just fascinated me. I ended up becoming the Editor in Chief of the journal, and that started my career.”

His first big break in the field was working for a well-respected environmental lawyer at a large law firm in New York City on superfund cleanups and environmental litigation, sometimes for developers, sometimes for nonprofits.  He next moved out west, to a job at a small firm specializing  entirely in environmental law, working on an array of issues—including the long-running Klamath Basin adjudication and conflicts over renewable energy development. But after eight years, he withdrew from practicing law, ready for something different. 

 “As an environmental lawyer, the greatest part about the job is that you get to work with expert witnesses—these are toxicologists, hydrologists or anyone who knows any relevant technical discipline. I just kind of really got intrigued by the technical side of what I was doing,” explained Orford.

It was part of what led him back to school, first for a Masters in Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley and then a doctoral degree with Berkeley’s Energy & Resources Group. Now, at UGA, he calls on his policy and cross-disciplinary background in teaching and collaborations across campus. 

What is Blue Carbon Law?

As a part of his broader interest in climate law and policy, in 2023, Orford tackled a topic at the nexus of marine, climate and international law—blue carbon law—in a publication forthcoming in a special issue of the Sea Grant Law & Policy Journal. It’s a thorny topic threading together several issues, each complex. 

There’s an existing and thriving market for carbon credits, whereby an entity buys credits for some form of carbon sequestration. The most established is the planting or protection of trees in forest offsetting, the premise being that the trees capture and hold atmospheric carbon for a period.

There’s growing interest in doing the same in aquatic systems, capitalizing on the ecosystem services offered by coastal networks like oyster reefs and salt marshes. 

Companies are increasingly incentivized to achieve carbon neutrality, which they often pursue through carbon offsetting.  “All of the forces operating to drive demand for carbon credits means that people are willing to spend money in enormous quantities on these types of activities,” explained Orford. “Blue carbon is relatively well understood by carbon market professionals, but the law is only just recognizing the need to consider it.”

Of course, carbon credits require a standard metric to measure the environmental benefits provided—and attaching a definite value to carbon sequestration is complicated. The nonprofit Verra leads the field in doing so, establishing processes to vet the global voluntary carbon market. So far, it’s published two methods of blue carbon offsetting, one for coastal wetland creation, the other focused on tidal wetland and seagrass restoration, facilitating the burgeoning blue carbon market.

What’s emerging around blue carbon is a kind of private law to guide what will and won’t count in the global market.

Questions have always arisen about the efficacy of voluntary carbon offsetting, and even compliance compensatory systems, with some concern that projects may not deliver the environmental benefits claimed. Another major criticism lofted is that the carbon market is by nature permissive. By doing some good on the one hand, like sequestering carbon, a company may wreak environmental havoc on the other, through fracking of natural gas, mining for critical minerals, or some other profitable but environmentally harmful endeavor. 

But a blue carbon market is developing despite these criticisms, and amounts to millions of dollars of cash that will flow somewhere. If researchers engage in the process, to ensure the efficacy of any marine sequestration method, blue carbon markets have the potential to fund critical aquatic restoration or conservation efforts. 

Orford hopes those involved in developing these systems—especially attorneys— pay attention to what the scientific community has to say.

“We lawyers aren’t engaged as much as we should be with scientific literature,” Orford said. “It’s fundamental to the practice of environmental law to understand how water works, and then to map onto it what our legal system does, and then criticize it because it’s not good enough.”

Collaboration and the next generation

The paper outlining blue carbon law was a product of the May 2023 Blue Carbon Symposium, which Orford, Shana Jones and Katie Hill at the Carl Vinson Institute were instrumental in planning, in collaboration with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the National Sea Grant Law Center. The event gathered stakeholders across disciplines and sectors, from lawyers to investors and scientists. It was one of the first times the different actors in the field had gathered.

That kind of work across expertise is exactly the sort of thing Orford would like to see more of when tackling nuanced climate issues. 

It’s part of what drew him to the River Basin Center. The River Basin Center’s cross-disciplinary projects dovetail with his interests. 

“One of the reasons that I’ve been excited to be involved with the River Basin Center is because, like water itself, it just touches on everything,” said Orford.

Orford speaking at the 2023 Blue Carbon Law Symposium. Provided photo.

He works and publishes beyond the water world, tackling energy and land-use issues too. 

And no matter what niche of law they pursue, he hopes to pass on tenets of his scholarship to students—lucid argumentation and elegant, precise writing among them. 

“Helping young people become lawyers is one of the coolest things I could possibly be engaged in,” shared Orford. “Lawyering is a challenging profession. It’s fundamentally about helping people, but it’s also a highly personalized, challenging job, where your skill set must constantly be developed. Environmental law, including natural resources, energy and climate change law, is an incredibly rewarding profession.”