Solving Complex Environmental Disputes One Puzzle at a Time: A Top EPA Enforcement Official Joins V&E
A coal mine was on the brink of closure. For environmentalists, it was welcome news. But for residents of a Native American tribal reservation who relied on mining jobs to support their families, the consequences of a closure would be devastating.
As an attorney for the mining company during the Obama Administration, it was Patrick Traylor’s job to convince the government to authorize the expansion and continued operation of the mine. The administration, amid a push to curtail fossil fuel use nationwide, was reluctant … until Traylor enlisted members of the tribal nation to explain that the mine was a vital source of income to their community. Ultimately, the government approved the expansion.
“I went to the Department of Interior and I said, ‘Look, I get it. As an administration, you want to go beyond coal … I’m not going to fight with you about that policy objective. But these native people should be the last to give up this economically essential resource,” recalled Traylor, who recently joined V&E’s D.C. office as a partner in the firm’s Environmental and Natural Resources practice.
Finding a way forward in unfavorable circumstances has long been a talent of Traylor’s. It was one that he relied on in his two decades of private practice and at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance during the Trump Administration.
“I’m told that I have a knack at making people feel legitimately heard and respected, and then crafting a solution,” he explained. “It may not be the win that everyone hoped for, but it’s something that we can all get behind.”
Traylor describes his practice as at the intersection of the energy sector and environmental law. In college, he considered majoring in physics before determining he was more suited to the legal field. But he never lost his passion for science and math. His affinity for those subjects, he said, has served him well.
“I just found it fascinating that you had this confluence of law and science in a code-driven program in environmental law. I treated problem-solving in environmental law classes as very intricate puzzles to be solved,” he said. “The unending complexity and the intellectual, philosophical, and technical challenges are what’s most interesting to me.”
For much of his career, Traylor applied his technical prowess and problem-solving skills on behalf of companies facing environmental enforcement cases or dealing with complex permitting matters. Early on, he benefited from the guidance of veteran attorneys at a venerable D.C.-based law firm, including John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the United States.
“I was particularly gratified to be able to work closely with him and see his humanity, his powerful intellect, and his encyclopedic knowledge of relevant case law, and also just to see how he worked, how he wrote, how he edited, and how he argued,” Traylor recalled. “It was a remarkable time in a young lawyer’s career.”
As he continued practicing and became a partner, Traylor found himself often serving as a trusted advisor to the senior management of the companies he represented. He thrived in that role. “The idea of being a good lawyer, but also a trusted advisor for some very large companies’ most difficult problems was very gratifying,” he said.
And yet, when the opportunity arose at the EPA, Traylor didn’t think twice. Though Traylor’s only experiences working for the government until then were through law school internships, he was excited about the challenge. “I’d never really flipped sides like that before in my post-school career,” he explained. “But I went in devoted to the mission. Without enforcement, all the laws that we have on the books are meaningless.”
As one of the highest-ranking environmental enforcement attorneys in the federal government, Traylor supervised the agency’s Clean Air Act civil enforcement docket. One case, in particular, made headlines: a $300 million settlement with Fiat Chrysler over allegations that the automaker cheated on federal emissions tests. The automaker was accused of installing “defeat devices” that caused emissions controls in vehicles to perform less effectively on the road than in government tests.
Traylor was the principal EPA negotiator in the settlement. “We hammered out a deal that sent a very strong signal to the regulated community that United States isn’t messing around when it comes to these kinds of cases,” he said. “We meant to communicate that when we find these kinds of purposeful evasions of emission controls, the full weight of the United States government will be brought down in enforcement against the company.”
Now that he’s back in private practice, Traylor said he’ll use his government experience to inform his work at V&E and help companies comply with the law without putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage. He’s especially focused on building a world-class mobile source enforcement defense practice.
“Given my experience at the agency with Fiat and in other cases, that’s an area that’s very important to me, and I know EPA will remain vigorous in that sector,” he said. “Now I’m able to advise clients even more fully, not only on the technical and policy aspects of their cases, but also on exactly how the EPA approaches enforcement.”
This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.