October 28, 2013

Q&A with New Board Member Douglas Wheeler

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Q&A with New Board Member Douglas Wheeler

In Fiscal Year 2013, the Nicholas Institute appointed two new members to its Board of Advisors, Douglas Wheeler, an environmental lawyer focused on federal regulatory issues, and William Rosenberg, president of E3 Gasification LLC. Wheeler recently discussed his work in the environmental space with the Nicholas Institute.

You have spent decades working on environmental issues. What led you to become interested in this space?

I had the good fortune, shortly after graduation from Duke Law School, to be employed in a legal position at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Although not well remembered, President Nixon—another Duke Law graduate—was then advocating an ambitious environmental agenda. During this period, “the morning after Earth Day,” I played a supporting role in drafting and helping to implement pioneering environmental statutes, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and executive orders that established the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Since then, my career in the public, private, and non-profit sectors has tracked the continuing evolution of U.S. environmental law and policy.  

What environmental topics are you most passionate about and why?

I am intrigued by the identification and quantification of ecosystem services and by the emergence of private-sector markets for those services as an alternative to exclusive reliance on government regulation. Although the biological sciences have evolved to reflect an understanding of comprehensive ecosystems and their intrinsic values, laws and policies have not been adapted accordingly. One of my most innovative clients, Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP), invests private capital in large-scale ecosystem restoration, making markets for the sale of mitigation “credits,” which can be used to offset the adverse impacts of nearby development. Thanks to the leadership of Nick Dilks, a Nicholas School graduate, and his colleagues at EIP, this concept of advanced mitigation has gained an important toehold in the growing national marketplace for ecosystem services.

What attracted you to the Nicholas Institute Board of Advisors?

I’ll admit to a bias in favor of Duke University (Law ‘66) and to admiration for the policy leadership of Tim Profeta and his staff. The institute’s people and projects exemplify essential elements of innovation. And I cannot help but respect the diverse skills of fellow board members, who provide thoughtful guidance for the institute from the perspective of long experience in related fields, public and private.

What does it take to implement innovative solutions to environmental problems?

Creativity, sound science, the courage of one’s convictions, and persistence. Pushing the envelope of conventional wisdom, even in the face of apparently inflexible laws or policies, is important.

If you had to name one environmental issue that people should pay attention to, what would it be and why?

I’ve thought from the very beginning of my career that the absence of effective land use planning is the root cause of most environmental problems. As we now confront the very real prospect of sea level rise, we should not attempt to armor the seashore, but instead should plan to rely on the buffering effect of resilient, dynamic ecosystems.

How do the issues the Nicholas Institute works on affect your practice?

The institute is a test bed for new concepts, policies, and practices that can guide the formulation of public policy and strengthen my representation of clients’ interests. An example is the Clean Air and Technology Innovation (CATI) project. A well-regarded former official of the Environmental Protection Agency, Rob Brenner, is working at the institute to examine the ways in which new pollution control technologies might improve compliance with the Clean Air Act. This summer, law students at Hogan Lovells contributed legal research to CATI, and lawyers in our environmental practice, myself included, participated in a roundtable discussion of its preliminary findings.