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A Q&A Conversation With Jerry Worsham

February 22, 2024

A veteran of environmental law and the energy and mining industries, Phoenix Member Jerry Worsham continues to help clients navigate ever-changing laws and regulations related to environmental compliance, land use development, energy production, and Superfund sites.

Worsham recently discussed his extensive background in the energy industry, how that made him a successful lawyer, and what he continues to help clients with today.

You took a unique path to practicing law, what was your career arc before legal?

My undergraduate degree was a combination of biology and chemistry. In summers I worked as a roustabout in the West Texas oil fields of the Permian Basin. I got my environmental career started as an Environmental Coordinator with a major oil company in California. I was the principal author of a “White Paper” for the Western Oil and Gas Association on industry projects related to the permitting of oil field equipment under the Clean Air Act and I got to testify in front of Congress. I later worked for another oil company that had a major find of oil and gas in North Dakota’s Bakken formation, and I wound up starting their environmental program in the Rockies. I negotiated permits for oil and gas production on federal BLM land, Federal Forest Service land, State Trust land, and private land from North Dakota to New Mexico.

How did that background lead to your legal career?

After a few years of getting those permits for natural resource development, my Corporate Environmental Manager told me that, according to the company lawyers, I couldn’t get the permits that I had successfully negotiated. He suggested that I attend law school and go to work for him at corporate headquarters. They paid for me to attend a night school program at the University of Denver-School of Law while continuing to work for the company, which worked out well. However, they sold their oil and gas division and laid off 4,000 employees, including me, just as I was wrapping up my degree. They still paid for the rest of my law school, but I had to look elsewhere for legal work after that.

I fortunately got a job at an oil and gas-oriented firm in New Mexico that had been in business since 1902. They were one of the historical firms working in natural resource development in that area. After a few years in New Mexico, I went on to work in-house with Phelps Dodge Corporation, an Arizona-based mining operation that was the second-largest copper mining company in the world at the time. I was responsible for defending against a number of federal and state Superfund Sites that the company had been identified as a “Potentially Responsible Party.” I went back into private practice after that.

How do you feel that career helps make your legal work unique?

Early on in my career, I learned how the technical issues and legal systems work together as an environmental practitioner. I think that makes a difference that I know a lot about how environmental consultants work with federal and state agencies as opposed to attorneys who work in the law office and haven’t worked in the field. Instead of talking about how to get an environmental permit or manage an environmental program, I’ve done that in many different states. I think that makes me stand out.

To bring it now to the present day, what kinds of projects have you been working on lately?

Lately, I’ve been helping with the clean up of contaminated properties in several areas. In Arizona, I recently completed a project for a Utah company on a property that used to be a lumber yard and no one would touch it because it was contaminated and within the geographic area of a State Superfund Site. There was also an issue with a homeless encampment that I worked with the City of Phoenix to resolve. I got what’s called a Prospective Purchaser Agreement from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, which cuts off the liability to the current owner from environmental contamination caused by the historical owner. That allowed my client to come in and do a little bit of cleanup with the property but without the liability associated with historical operations. They are now constructing a large industrial storage facility on the property. I was given an honorary “golden shovel” for the project groundbreaking ceremony.

I’m helping a client negotiate with a large utility company trying to close down a coal-fired power plant. The utility has to clean up the entire contaminated area above and below ground. Due to regional groundwater contamination, they will have to purchase a portion of my client’s ranch. This ranch has been in their family since the 1800s. I’m helping the client negotiate the purchase and sale agreement; however, they’re not really interested in selling.

In Europe, I’ve been working on an issue regarding potential Chrome 6+ exposure, a highly carcinogenic material. I’ve confirmed that this Chrome 6+ exposure doesn’t have any ties to stainless steel products manufactured by the client, so we’ve been able to defend against any potential liability claims.

What seems to be especially topical in environmental law recently?

Climate change is a major topic in environmental law with both international and American interests. Clark Hill has a very active ESG and Sustainability working group that is knowledgeable on climate change issues. I’m working with two major US trade associations, the Environmental Bankers Association and the Association of General Contractors of America on environmental regulations. They’re very concerned with the new regulations coming out with climate change and the fact that they will have to calculate their emissions that are associated with greenhouse gases.

The Environment Bankers Association is trying to grapple with the fact that banks will have to evaluate their loan portfolios and determine what liability might be associated with the new loans they give out. Banks will have to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions and the impact of climate change on their loan portfolios.

The Association of General Contractors is going to have to calculate the carbon emissions associated with all of the construction projects that are awarded under federal contracts that have been proposed under the new federal infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act which passed in 2023.

The Securities Exchange Commission has also issued new draft regulations for publicly-traded companies concerning the disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions for companies 10K and 10Q Reports. The state of California recently passed legislation that would require companies to report their greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s a major topic in the environmental field.

Outside of the office, you’ve done quite a bit of work with the Barrow Neurological Institute Foundation. What have you taken from that experience?

The Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix is world-renowned for treating patients with neurological conditions including aneurysms, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, migraines spinal injury, or other unique neurological issues. They bring people from all over the world who haven’t found care elsewhere and they’ll do brain surgery or new clinical trials to try and save them. I was on the institute’s Foundation Board of Trustees for 10 years to work on fundraising for them. It was a fascinating experience. I got to observe a live brain surgery and experience some of the new robotic and technological innovations that surgeons are being trained on. They recently opened a new facility called the Barrow Neuroplex which allowed them to expand, so I’m really proud of the work I did with that health care facility.

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