It doesn’t matter what industry a corporation is in; generating a profit is almost always going to be its top goal. Over the years, however, another factor has made its way up to the top of the corporate priority list: environmental responsibility. This is especially true for businesses that focus on energy development.
These businesses want to do what’s best for the environment when they make project-development decisions, but they cannot compromise their bottom line. Essentially, the corporations want to be viewed by the public as ecologically responsible, and they have to make sure they’re being compliant with the environmental regulations set by the government, but at the same time, they must be responsible to their shareholders. So, when an energy developer needs to make an important environmental decision, it often turns to its general counsel for perspective.
The Word on Green
General counsel Indra Maharaj has been practicing law for 25 years and has seen the energy industry from all sides. Here, she shares her thoughts on some of the hot topics in the environmental sector:
“It is critical that we recognize the dependency between resource development and resource depletion. People need to be educated about the need for environmental responsibility.”
“Alternative fuels are a no-brainer. We need to develop as many viable alternatives to fossil fuels as possible. Think about how long it took to develop fossil fuel resources. Those baseline events are not replenishing the supply. We will deplete our resources, and then alternative fuels will not be an option.”
“Green marketing is, hopefully, a phase in encouraging industry to become environmentally responsible by choice. If an industry can get value today from making environmentally responsible choices, perhaps those choices will become standards in the future and green marketing will become a thing of the past.”
At most companies, the general counsel is in the unique position to drive respect for environmental responsibility and advocate for more sustainable practices in project development while balancing the economic realities of the company. The general counsel sits at the leadership level of a company, understands its core business, and can advise decision-makers about developments in environmental law and the impact of an environmental decision on the company’s reputation.
“My task is to bring the environmental sustainability issues forward with an economically viable solution and to create an understanding of the importance of environmental responsibility from a legal, regulatory-compliance, and a corporate-responsibility point of view,” says Indra Maharaj, general counsel and vice president of regulatory and environment for Axsiom Group of Companies.
Maharaj has been practicing law for 25 years and says the general counsel/environmental counsel role is one she has embraced and loves. Her knowledge and insight are invaluable to a corporation because of the surging importance of environmental responsibility in energy development and the heightened consequences that accompany any failure to comply with current regulations.
“With legislation changing rapidly and penalties for failing to comply with environmental regulations being more significant, general counsel has inherent credibility when advising an executive or board of directors to choose environmentally responsible options,” Maharaj says. “General counsel brings all perspectives to the decision-making table: legal, regulatory, environmental, business, and project economics.”
Sometimes, however, the environmentally responsible route does not align with the company’s bottom line. In that instance, Maharaj and other general counsel like her are put in the unenviable position of asking decision-makers to look past the dollar signs.
“If choosing the environmentally responsible route is optional and there’s a negative impact on the bottom line, then you must emphasize the reputational goodwill to be achieved from choosing the green alternative,” Maharaj says. “In other cases, where there are penalties or reputational risks, you must underscore the legal or regulatory requirements.”
The Axsiom Group of Companies recognizes the value in a balance between the project and the planet. Developing projects that are environmentally responsible does not mean that they are economically compromised. In fact, projects that create positive environmental impacts are becoming commercially vibrant in their own right. Capturing this market space just requires vision, discipline, and persistence.
Keeping environmental responsibility at the top of corporate decision-making is still somewhat of an uphill climb, but Maharaj has seen positive movement recently. “In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a change in priorities in project developers’ minds,” she says. “The profile of environmental protection has become big enough and influential enough that legislation and public opinion have followed it. What I’m also starting to see more—what I love being able to lead and influence—is that environmental responsibility is becoming a pillar of project development, a driver of decision-making, not an afterthought.”
Maharaj takes this notion to heart, inspired by a great visionary and lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi said, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world,’” Maharaj says. “If we, as lawyers, can be that change, by leading environmental responsibility in balance with fiscal responsibility, then change has a better chance of occurring.”