Senior Attorney Peter Lehner
“We’re starting to lay the groundwork for lasting change—assembling the facts and economics of why sustainable practices would be good for farmers, for communities, and for society as a whole.”
Peter Lehner isn’t easily daunted. His first taste of environmental law came at a time that, not unlike our own, looked bleak for the environment.
The year was 1980 and Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. Fresh out of college, Lehner—long a lover of the outdoors—landed an internship with the small Washington, D.C., office of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice). There he helped then-Managing Attorney Rick Middleton challenge a foolhardy plan to develop a supertanker port in Galveston, Texas, by dredging 30 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. The two were up against a major law firm, oil companies, and the political establishment—and they won.
“For me it was an amazing story of the power of law—that even when the politics and money are against you, with the law and the science and facts on your side you can win,” says Lehner. “Working at SCLDF that year convinced me that I wanted to become an environmental lawyer.”
Ever since then, Lehner has used the law creatively to catalyze far-reaching environmental protections. Working for New York City, he made novel use of the Clean Water Act to force upstate facilities to stop polluting the watersheds that provide the city’s drinking water. As chief of the New York State Attorney General’s environmental protection bureau, Lehner made groundbreaking use of the Clean Air Act to compel coal-fired power plants in New York and upwind states to stop fouling New York’s air with smog and soot; those cases led the Bush administration to tighten smog and soot standards for coal plants throughout the nation. Lehner then brought one of the two landmark Supreme Court cases that established the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Among many accomplishments at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he once led the water program and later served as executive director for over eight years, Lehner cites helping make energy efficiency mainstream by obtaining stricter efficiency standards for cars, buildings, and appliances; ensuring low-income communities reaped the benefits of cost-saving efficiency; and developing systems to increase funding for energy efficiency programs.
Reforming Our Food System
Lehner returned to Earthjustice in fall 2015 to tackle a huge problem that has long troubled him: how to reform our harmful industrial food and farming system. “I had been seeing everywhere I worked that agriculture is the largest cause of water pollution,” he says. “But it was always a challenge to address because the laws have been interpreted as exempting a lot of agriculture.”
In addition to contributing about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, our food system is appallingly inefficient: about 70 percent of crops grown in the United States become animal feed and biofuels and 40 percent of what we can eat is ultimately thrown out. Then there are the public health impacts. “We now subsidize food that makes us sick far more than we subsidize food that makes us healthy. We spend almost a trillion dollars a year on diet-related disease in this country.”
Lehner is confident that transformative change is possible. “When I started 30 years ago, nobody had really thought about changing the energy system. There wasn’t a vision like we have now of an efficient and distributed clean energy economy.”
“With farming and agriculture we’re where we were with energy a long time ago. There are tremendous opportunities to increase efficiency throughout the food system, and to produce plenty of food safely in more distributed, integrated ways, often using natural systems instead of as many chemicals.”
“This is not a situation where we don’t know how to do the right thing,” he adds. “There are lots of farmers who are growing healthy food in a way that protects the environment.” Lehner should know: He helps run a large coffee farm in Costa Rica that has won coveted certification for conservation in cultivation.
The problem, he says, is that there aren’t enough people doing the right thing, and that’s often because our laws and policies encourage polluting behavior. That’s where Earthjustice comes in. Lehner sees the organization’s legal know-how and its strong relationships with hundreds of client organizations as particular strengths for helping to reform the food system.
Driving Far-Reaching Reforms
Lehner plans to tackle agriculture in the same way he has approached other persistent environmental problems: by identifying creative approaches that can drive far-reaching reforms. For instance, his team is developing legal strategies to encourage the more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer, which will help farmers save money, protect our water and air, and decrease emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
“We’re starting to lay the groundwork for lasting change—assembling the facts and economics of why sustainable practices would be good for farmers, for communities, and for society as a whole,” he says. Lehner is speaking out about the food system’s harms and opportunities for win-win changes at conferences and on his blog, Fertile Grounds. He’s convinced that the widespread interest in safe food can help drive cleaner farming and broader environmental awareness.
He relishes the challenge. “My family and I are very excited, particularly in these Trump years, that I’m at a place that is going to be on the front lines of trying to protect a healthy environment.”
By Denise Bergez
Originally published in the Earthjustice Insider, Winter 2017