Q&A: James Holtkamp
Published in 2009 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine on June 22, 2009
Before cap-and-trade, clean coal and carbon footprint were buzzwords, James Holtkamp was advising clients on alternative energy. A decade later, in 2007, he launched Holland & Hart’s global climate change practice in Salt Lake City, which became the first of its kind in the region.
Super Lawyers: What led you to form your firm’s global climate change practice group?
James Holtkamp: A huge part of our practice is energy—oil and gas companies, coal companies, wind power, solar power, geothermal and everything associated with it. Most companies are based or have substantial operations in the western U.S. It quickly became apparent a few years ago that we needed to be concentrating on climate change policies and issues.
And the global part?
We compete against big firms in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto, and it’s hard to elbow your way into Europe and China. But Latin America is a place where we found a lot of opportunity, a lot of need, which other firms aren’t focusing on.
What kind of opportunity?
We represent the Pax Natura Foundation [which sells carbon credits to U.S. companies to fund] rainforest preservation work in Central America.
But most of the time you advise corporate clients on environmental policy.
Yes. People aren’t yet very successful in suing companies for emitting greenhouse gases. It’s kind of like the very early days of tobacco litigation. But New York, for example, has become very aggressive in requiring companies traded on the NYSE to start disclosing climate change risks. Many companies have decided that they had better be sitting at the table on climate change, rather than be on the menu, as it were.
What would you consider to be the best comprehensive energy solution?
In Utah, electricity is 90 percent coal-generated. In the United States it’s 50 percent. Coal isn’t going to go away soon, so it’s going to be a decades-long process. It will require clean coal technology, more wind, more geothermal. It’s going to require carbon capture sequestration (CCS) for existing facilities. It’s going to require nuclear—nobody likes it, a lot of people don’t like to admit that—but it will, if you want to keep the electricity going.
Is clean coal an oxymoron?
No. Right now, most of the public attention is focused on CCS, [a way to make coal cleaner by] stripping the carbon dioxide out of the gas from the boilers after the coal is burned, compressing it, putting it into pipes, taking it to the appropriate geologic repository and pumping it underground and sequestering it.
The devil is in the details and the cost. The amount of infrastructure to make a dent in CO2 from the existing coal-fire-powered plants may require basically the same size of pipeline system as we have for natural gas in the United States.
If we pursue CCS, where would we store the carbon?
People are looking at big salt domes scattered around the United States, thousands of feet underground. The domes are remnants of ancient seas that have been used historically for storage of natural gas and helium, which has proven over time to be very secure. [Scientists] are also evaluating the use of deep aquifers. Apparently they have the capacity to hold large amounts of CO2.
Then there’s work in the northwest U.S. on the basalt formations where very hard volcanic rock is impermeable. It actually reacts with the CO2 and the CO2 becomes mineralized.
There’s a lot of criticism out there about clean coal technology.
I’ll acknowledge that the people pushing CCS have failed to do a good job in educating the public generally about what’s going on.
How will the new administration address climate issues?
The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is coming up in December. The Kyoto Protocol itself expires in 2012. So the focus is, what are we going to do internationally after 2012? With the Obama administration in place, the international community is now breathing sighs of relief that the U.S. is back at the table.
How progressive is Utah in comparison with the rest of the U.S.?
In terms of the scale, we’re certainly not where Oregon is, or New York, or Connecticut or Massachusetts. We’re way ahead of Idaho, Nevada and most of the South. I’d put us in the middle.
[Gov. Jon Hunstman] is a progressive Republican. A little left of moderate even. And he has been very strong in advocating being part of the Western Climate Initiative, which has this intention of having a regional cap-and-trade program in place by 2012, if the feds don’t step in beforehand.
Do you personally adopt a green lifestyle?
[Laughs] In other words, are you a hypocrite? Well, I drive a Mini [Cooper], which has pretty good gas mileage. We downsized our house several years ago. We try to recycle as much as we can. I try to do the things my mother taught me to.