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Next-Generation Energy Expert: The Scientist-Scholar-Lawyer

Published: October 24, 2016
Brett A Miller
Brett A Miller
A Profile of the Next-Generation Energy Expert

Brett A. Miller, a 2015-16 ConocoPhillips Energy Institute Fellow in the Texas A&M Energy Institute and a 2016 graduate of the Texas A&M Law School, recently began working as a law clerk at the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA) in Austin. His path to this career point is slightly different from many of his classmates at Texas A&M – before he started his coursework at the Texas A&M Law School campus in Fort Worth, he had already distinguished himself as an accomplished scholar and scientist. Bringing scholarship, scientific discovery, and legal issues together, Miller represents the next generation of energy experts: the scientist-scholar-lawyer.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in biology, environmental science, and history from Rhodes College in 2009, Miller went on to Louisiana State University, where he conducted water quality analyses, identified macroinvertebrate and fish, and planned, managed, and completed an intensive three-year research study examining the productivity of the Atchafalaya River basin in south Louisiana. He earned a Master of Science (M.S.) in renewable natural resources in 2013, specializing in freshwater fisheries ecology. Armed with experience as scientist and scholar, he went on to the Texas A&M Law School and recently graduated.

Now he works for TXOGA, an association that represents the interests of the oil and natural gas industry in the State of Texas. The Aggie tradition is also well represented at TXOGA, as President Todd Staples is a graduate of Texas A&M University (’84). Founded in 1919, TXOGA is the largest and oldest petroleum organization in Texas, and currently represents more than 5,000 members. Brett has benefitted from the opportunity to learn from another successful Texas A&M University graduate, Vice President and General Counsel Cory Pomeroy (’01). Among his various tasks at TXOGA, Miller credits the Energy Institute Fellowship with preparing him to approach legal and regulatory matters from an interdisciplinary perspective.

After his graduation in May 2016, the Texas A&M Energy Institute asked Miller a series of questions. Here are his responses:

What made you choose Texas A&M?

Growing up in Central Texas (Georgetown, TX), and going to high school in Austin, I was not as familiar with the Texas A&M Aggie traditions. Returning to Texas, after stops in Memphis, Alaska, and Baton Rouge—it’s very clear that Texas A&M is the premier institution in the State of Texas. The schools in Austin, Dallas, and Waco cannot compete with the resources, academics, and passion that permeate the Aggie tradition. As you may know, the Texas A&M School of Law is relatively new, and our graduating class was the first to attend all three years as Aggies. With that in mind and after considering many other law schools in Texas, my decision was influenced by several qualities of Texas A&M School of Law, which ultimately contributed to my decision. First, Fort Worth is a great city and the location provides numerous professional opportunities for students. Next, the law school was already well established in the legal and academic community. In comparison to other schools, Texas A&M School of Law provided a great opportunity to study energy, oil & gas, environmental, and water law—especially in a city founded on the oil & gas sector, in large part because of the Barnett Shale. Finally, and probably the most exciting reason that I chose Texas A&M were the substantial academic resources that accompany being part of the institution. At Texas A&M, there is a palpable desire to be great and recognized on a national stage. That collective purpose is what is most inspiring, the chance to build something and make our contribution to these Aggie traditions that have been so deeply ingrained in the fabric of this state.

How have you been changed?

The fact that law school changes everyone is probably the most truthful answer, but specific to Texas A&M, being part of the institution has absolutely granted me with the platform to pursue the research that I am most passionate about. Very few law students, even those students at the top of the law school rankings, are afforded with the vast number of opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to experience. Being part of the Texas A&M academic community, mainly due to the incredible resources throughout the system, have provided me with the practical insight and academic expertise to pursue any career of my choosing. Because of these institutional resources, I have fostered great relationships with professors in both Fort Worth and College Station. Texas A&M has given me the opportunity to publish numerous articles, both in law reviews and scientific peer-reviewed journals. A good friend and I even competed in an Energy Law ADR Competition in Houston, where we negotiated oil & gas leases with students from all over the country, as far away as the University of Wyoming.

In large part because of location, students are presented with numerous internship opportunities. I was fortunate enough to intern in the legal department at XTO Energy in Fort Worth, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. While at XTO, I was given the chance to learn from one of our renowned adjunct professors, Ronnie Blackwell, who teaches oil & gas law. For the past year, I was even afforded the chance to intern at one of the largest private equity firms in the country, an experience that has given me an even greater appreciation of the energy-water-environment nexus, particularly within the context of corporate and financial perspectives. From these experiences, whether at XTO, or in the financial realm, or even researching the Endangered Species Act—each of these sectors are interconnected with energy law. As we go forward, I am confident that these unique experiences and relationships—made possible by Texas A&M—will help me be successful throughout my legal career.

What gives you the most pride?

I think our school should be extremely proud, particularly because of our collective journey towards national recognition. The Dean of Students at the law school (Andrew Morriss), has done an incredible job facilitating the positive momentum that the school seems to have gathered in the transition to the Texas A&M University System. We have so many quality students in many different realms of law, including students clerking at the Texas Supreme Court, students excelling in positions at county courts, law firms, and various roles with government agencies. For me personally, probably what I am most proud of are the contributions that I made, along with my fellow graduates, as we begin to achieve more and more recognition and publicity on a national level.

For me personally, I am most proud of the research and writing that I completed as part of my fellowship with the Texas A&M Energy Institute. One of my articles, entitled Embracing the Water-Energy Contradiction, explored the regulatory implications associated with renewable energy’s dependence on non-renewable copper. This article won a national writing competition, the Hartrick Scholar Award, which was presented by the Institute for Energy Law. Many different law schools competed in this competition, including SMU, University of Houston, Texas Tech, and many others, so I was proud to win the award for the first time in Texas A&M’s history. As part of this experience, I received the award at the 67th Annual Oil & Gas Law Conference in Houston, Texas, while also being invited to attend the Hartrick Symposium: Career Paths for Young Attorneys in the Energy Sector, which took place in Norman, Oklahoma. Separately, the same article was also selected for publication by the University of Denver Water Law Review.

How has being an Energy Institute Fellow shaped your career?

The chance to do research as an Energy Institute Fellow certainly impacted my time in law school and will continue to pay dividends throughout my career as an attorney. Law firms are looking for people who can show specialized knowledge and expertise in certain areas, so the Energy Institute Fellowship absolutely provided the platform to set me apart from other law students.

I believe that I’m the second law student to become an Energy Institute Fellow, so we certainly appreciate that the law school has been given a chance to work with the main campus. The things that I have learned this past year as an Energy Institute Fellow will continue to benefit me throughout my career as an attorney. Not only did the fellowship provide a platform to pursue my passions, but the experience developed my critical thinking skills in ways that would otherwise not be possible. With that in mind, these critical thinking skills will allow me to approach complex legal questions that I’m presented with at a law firms, in a way that better understands a particular clients’ issues, and solving these problems from multiple perspectives. And because of the vast importance of energy, I will be able to draw on my experiences as an Energy Institute Fellow—which is true regardless of whether I’m working in the realms of corporate & securities, transactional negotiations, infrastructure financing, endangered species, or even litigation. Especially in Texas, but true throughout the United States, oil & gas law crosses into many different areas of the law, whether that be wills & estates, environmental, water, transactional, litigation, regulatory, among many others.

As a scientist, I am familiar with laboratory research, and the fact that the scientific method primarily answers relevant questions about the how and the why. Conversely, the law provides the platform to understand the how and the why, but from a more comprehensive perspective and within the context of the what, who, when, and where. This is particularly true in many areas of law, whether it be regulatory, transactional, or even aspects of litigation strategy and procedure. As a scientist, we researched various freshwater ecosystems from a perspective that recognized the interconnectedness. For instance, even in a diverse ecosystem, the fish, water quality, macroinvertebrate, and climate all contributed to the understanding of the processes that drive the productivity. The same is ultimately true in the energy industry, just on a different scale. Energy plays a role in almost every single aspect of our lives. Although economics, science, and the law each play various roles in our understanding of the energy industry, the interdisciplinary nature of the industry remains consistent. Sometimes, however, our regulations and politics fail to appreciate this nexus. The researchers and professors at Texas A&M are very astute at recognizing and seeking to understanding this water-energy-food nexus.

How has a faculty member pushed you to success or a to deeper understanding of your field of study?

This aspect of Texas A&M is probably the most remarkable. Throughout my academic career, I have had many incredible professors and whom I owe a great deal of gratitude. Whether at Rhodes College or LSU, several of these mentors really shaped my career and impacted my life substantially. However, I felt very lucky to have those experiences, because, in comparison, the overwhelming majority of professors seem to care deeply about the well being and growth of their students. This compassion and the sense of being more than just a number is just another reason the institution should be very proud.

Several professors really stand out for the opportunities and time that they dedicated to challenging me and making me both a better student and person. Professor Gabriel Eckstein, who teaches Water law, Oil & Gas law, and Property law at the law school, was one of the reasons I chose to attend Texas A&M. His scholarship and research interests were very intriguing to me as a prospective student. I was drawn to his passion for the subject and his appreciation for an interdisciplinary approach to critical thinking and problem solving. His research centers on the water-energy-food nexus, and he examines various topics that are particularly relevant to energy law. These range from groundwater law in Texas to the human right to water on the international level. He was also incredibly helpful in providing guidance and insight for my own article. This particular article was published this year in the UCLA Journal for Environmental Law & Policy, which explored the conflict between science and the law within the context of the Endangered Species Act. I will always be grateful that he gave me the chance to succeed and people like him are the reason that students should choose Texas A&M School of Law.

Another professor who has played a substantial role in my life is the famous Dr. Ron Kaiser, here in College Station, director of the Texas A&M Water Management & Hydrological Sciences. I got to know Dr. Kaiser as part of a joint law/graduate school summer course in Guanajuato, Mexico. People like Dr. Kaiser embody what is great about Texas A&M. Not only is he incredibly well respected and accomplished within Texas water law, but genuinely cares about his students.

We are also very fortunate at the law school to have incredible Adjunct Professors, who still practice law and provide great insight into the nuances that we’ll face when we start practicing.

Professor Harry Sullivan, who taught International Petroleum Transactions, is definitely one of my favorite professors. Aside from his unforgettable stories, ranging from the Louisiana bayous to Mauritania, his lectures regarding the negotiations in the petroleum industry were fascinating and helpful as we transition from the theoretical academic side of the law to the practical realities of being an attorney. Professor Sullivan is kind of a larger-than-life type figure in the international petroleum industry. For a long time he worked as counsel with ConocoPhillips, and now with Kosmos Energy. He even sponsored a student chapter of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators (AIPN) on campus. I’m currently in the process of submitting the article that I wrote in his class for publication in a law journal, but his course gave me the chance to explore and research Transactional Implications of International Artificial Reef Conversion. Essentially, there are thousands of offshore oil platforms across the world that are no longer producing. As part of this decommissioning process, I examined the economic advantages for companies that choose to convert these rigs into artificial reefs, and how this option may be significant for oil companies in their negotiations of granting agreements or joint operating agreement (JOAs).

Ronnie Blackwell, another adjunct professor at Texas A&M, became a mentor and friend when I interned under him at XTO Energy. He teaches a popular oil & gas law course and even authored the Primer on the Texas Law of Oil & Gas (which is widely used by many oil & gas attorneys across the state). I was also fortunate to take several classes with Professor Michael Goldman, a respected litigator in DFW. He taught both environmental litigation drafting and environmental oil & gas law. Aside from the substantive knowledge, Professor Goldman provided us with a much deeper understanding of procedural strategy, understanding the best interests of clients, and most importantly, what it means to be a professional in the practice of law.

What is the most important thing you learned?

The most important thing that I learned as a Texas A&M Energy Institute Fellow is to be diligent and focused in the pursuit of research, but also aware that there are generally multiple sides to every story. Within the various layers exist contradictions that may not be apparent on the surface. In my opinion, identifying these contradictions or innovative thought processes can provide significant improvements in any sector, whether that be the energy industry, law practice, business strategy, or the environmental protection—but the key remains to identify these regulatory hurdles. Throughout my academic career, and particularly with the Texas A&M Energy Institute, I have sought to identify and bring attention to these contradictions at the energy-water nexus.

What is one big challenge that you hope to address or solve in your professional career?

From a broader perspective, I want people to be aware of these types of contradictions, which not only exist in energy sector but in various disciplines. It is human nature to want to follow a preconceived narrative and have these so-called “blinders on.” Often times it seems that our regulatory approach is controlled by narratives, rather than having an open mind and considering all the factors, or in the legal world—the “totality of circumstances.” My opinions are probably much more anthropocentric than many other ecologists, but my beliefs are rooted in the sense that we can continue to profit from the environment in sustainable ways.

What would you tell someone who is considering energy-related studies or research at Texas A&M?

Even to someone who may not be considering energy-related studies, I would recommend looking into the vast possibilities to be successful at Texas A&M. Whether that be engineering, geology, water management, or even law school—energy relates to almost every facet of academia, and there is no better place to study energy than with the professors, students, and institutional resources at Texas A&M.