Combining Environmental Science, Policy, and Economics

Nick DiUlio for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Before graduating from Princeton University in 2007, Steve Anderson ’07 realized he wanted to pursue a career that combined his passions for environmental policy, science, and economics. For that reason, Anderson – a Woodrow Wilson School major – decided to obtain a certificate in environmental studies, a decision that helped pave the way to law school and to his current job as a staff attorney for the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of General Counsel in Washington D.C.

Now, at 29 years old, Anderson is responsible for providing legal advice to a variety of offices within the EPA, which involves researching legal issues, drafting and communicating his analyses, and coordinating with colleagues who work on similar matters. He also works closely with the Department of Justice to respond to any related pending or ongoing litigation.

Below, Anderson reflects upon his career path and the ways in which Princeton helped prepare him for such a dynamic and multi-faceted career.  Anderson spoke in his personal capacity, and the views he expressed are his own and do not reflect the view of the EPA or the United States government.

What made you decide to follow this particular career path?

I knew I wanted a career where I could combine my interests in environmental policy, science, and economics. Well before graduating from Princeton, I realized that being trained as an attorney and practicing environmental and energy law would be an excellent way to harness my interests. After graduating from law school at Georgetown University in 2010, I wrestled with where I could best apply my skills, but working for the EPA’s Office of General Counsel and focusing mostly on regulatory law has been a terrific opportunity.

What do you find most rewarding about the work you do for the EPA?

I get to work closely with policy-makers, economists, scientists, engineers, attorneys and other professionals on some of the most interesting environmental issues of the day. And it is especially worthwhile and rewarding to read about the increased protection of public health and the environment that results from the EPA’s actions – whether it is reduced incidents of asthma, cancer, mortality or some other environmental benefit.

Can you share a specific example?

There is no known safe level of asbestos, and exposure can lead to lung cancer, asbestosis, and other ailments. Yet, unfortunately, every month a number of criminals are convicted of violating the laws that protect the public from exposure to asbestos. I do not work in criminal enforcement to pursue convictions in particular instances, but I do help my colleagues across the agency to implement and to defend the regulatory protections against asbestos exposure.

Between January 2009 and April 2009 you worked as a legal extern with EPA’s Office of General Counsel before returning full-time in September 2010. At what moment did you know you had made the right career choice?

While working at EPA as a legal extern immediately after the inauguration [of President Barack Obama] in 2009, my major assignment was to research some legal issues that had been analyzed infrequently by courts and were key to defending the Agency’s efforts to confront climate change, which were jumpstarted by then-Administrator Lisa P. Jackson *86. I knew that if I was working on such an important issue as a law-student employee via EPA’s externship program – then a full-time career with EPA would be even more fulfilling.

Please describe a rewarding moment at the EPA and how you played a critical role as a staff attorney.

EPA has been interested in obtaining more data about the environmental presence of a siloxane chemical used in several cosmetic products called octamethylcyclotetrasiloxane, or D4, in order to better inform a risk assessment for the chemical. So EPA has been negotiating a voluntary testing agreement with the Silicones Environmental, Health, and Safety Center, which represents manufacturers of D4, with the goal of testing multiple locations across the United States for the presence of the chemical. At a public meeting in December 2013, EPA reached an agreement in principle with the companies to perform such testing.  My role has been to advise my colleagues in EPA about their legal authorities, procedural requirements and relative strengths as well as to help draft the agreement itself.

In what ways did your environmental studies certificate   prepare you for this career?  

The opportunity to earn a certificate in environmental studies through the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) helped to focus and drive my undergraduate studies. Combining the environmental certificate with a policy degree from the Woodrow Wilson School trained me to integrate multiple disciplines into a cohesive outcome – something that I frequently have to do in my work with scientists, economists, and others at the EPA.

Tell me about a specific experience you had through PEI that helped shape you professionally and personally.

In Professor George Hawkins’ ENV 310 course Environmental Law and Moot Court, one of our assignments was to re-argue a famous Supreme Court case. Not only did the experience help develop my skills at both oral and written argument, but it also helped me recognize what I did—and did not—enjoy about legal work.

Have there been any moments in your current profession where you thought back to your Princeton experience and the ways in which it helped inform your thought process?

When I worked on an effort that involved risk communication, I remembered an ENV class, Climate Change: Scientific Basis, Policy Implications, taught by Professor Michael Oppenheimer. In the course, Professor Oppenheimer led a discussion about how scientists should explain climate change to the lay public. He approached the issue in such an accessible way that the concepts were easily translated to my work, even though the topic was completely different. So when I thought about my assignment at EPA, I tried to advise my colleagues on ways to communicate the risk that were neither overly alarming nor overly calming, and that recognized any uncertainties where they were appropriate.

What are some of the most challenging and exciting projects you’re currently working on?

I counsel on a variety of topics, but a major undertaking recently has been the implementation of a statute passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2010 to address formaldehyde in composite wood products. Formaldehyde is used quite widely by certain industries to manufacture a variety of building materials and numerous household products. It is in resins used to manufacture some composite wood products, for example, hardwood plywood, particleboard, and some fiberboard. The primary exposure path to formaldehyde is through inhalation. Formaldehyde can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat and research indicates that high levels of exposure may cause some types of cancers.

Consequently in May 2013, EPA proposed two rules aimed at protecting the public from associated risks from formaldehyde, and the public comment period for the rules closed in October 2013. Now the Agency will work on evaluating the comments and will draft the final rule, which should be a rather interesting process for me.

Throughout the implementation of the statute, I’ve counseled colleagues at EPA on any legal questions they might have about the statute.

What are your near and long-term goals, either with the EPA or beyond?  

I am thrilled with my current job. Eventually, I would like to work at several offices within the EPA so that I better understand the Agency’s overall function. I’m also very interested in the interface between clean energy development and law, so I might return to that side of my interests at some point.

What advice do you have for current and prospective Princeton students who may be interested in obtaining a certificate in environmental studies? 

I’ve found that studying multiple disciplines has been extraordinarily helpful to my career. Even if I tend to use one or two more frequently, having some background in a variety makes it easier for me to interact with professionals in those disciplines. I also recommend taking advantage of any academic panels or events of interest outside of one’s coursework.