November 05, 2013
Tulane Law School students Max Hass and Morgan Embleton finish putting on protective gear for the Valero refinery tour.
Tulane Law School students Aminta Conant and Renee Orenstein look at sulfur, crude oil and other materials produced during the refining process.
Tulane Law School student Ramón Lantigua talks with Valero Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Rich Walsh during the tour of the company’s St. Charles Refinery.
More than a dozen Tulane Law students got an up-close look at the complexity of legal compliance in the energy industry during a full-day field visit to one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated refineries on Oct. 25.
Valero’s St. Charles Refinery, which spreads across 1,000 acres upstream of New Orleans in Destrehan, Louisiana, employs more than 500 full-timers plus 1,000 contractors; produces gasoline, kerosene, diesel, petroleum coke and other products; has its own wastewater operation; and recently opened a unit that turns rendered animal fat into diesel fuel.
Doing legal work for this kind of company requires understanding the science of refining, the details of the facilities and the intricacies of the business, as well as the corporate culture, Tulane Law students learned during meetings with Valero lawyers and engineers at the site.
The field trip, the latest offering in Tulane Law School’s expanding array of experiential learning opportunities, was designed to give students a behind-the-scenes look at how legal compliance is managed in the context of a complex business enterprise. The goal was to show students that having deep familiarity with their clients’ operations is often essential to successful lawyering.
“You have to understand the science before you can understand the law,” said Valero Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Rich Walsh.
After lessons on safety essentials and oil refining, the 14 students put on hard hats, safety glasses, Nomex fire-retardant suits, ear plugs and breathing monitors (OSHA-compliant protective leather footwear also was required) and walked through the refinery for a close-up look at the coker, catalytic cracking unit, desalter water feed drum, vacuum tower and other machinery connected by multiple mazes of tubing.
Group members peered into the window of the Claus furnace, where the orange-hot glow indicated burning at 2000 degrees to remove sulfur from the hydrogen sulfide gas that the crude oil refining process produces. They stood over the open tanks where bacteria were cleaning wastewater and went inside the windowless control room where staff monitor operations via computers on a dedicated network.
Students got to talk individually with Valero officials, including engineer and Director of Environmental and Safety Affairs Rob Martin (A&S ’88) and lawyers who flew in from the company’s San Antonio headquarters for the day.
Valero’s in-house legal team includes about 30 lawyers, Walsh said. He discussed the company’s environmental justice policy and its efforts to build community trust after purchasing and cleaning up what was a troubled site in 2003. And he gave a rundown of the many types of law that Valero’s team encounters: environmental law; commercial disputes; government regulatory agencies at the local, state and federal levels, including OSHA, the IRS, Federal Trade Commission and even the Bureau of Indian Affairs; white collar criminal defense; tort law; Department of Homeland Security compliance; and the rapidly growing area of administrative law.
Managing Counsel Elizabeth Bourbon called the breadth and variety of the work overwhelming. “I don’t get asked an easy question ever,” she said.
Appellate specialist Alex Miller, recruited by Valero from a major Texas plaintiffs firm, told students they should develop specialized skills and build relationships, even with opposing counsel.
LLM student D’Ann Penner gave the tour high marks and told Walsh he “definitely drove home your early point that one has to understand the science to litigate successfully in oil and gas.”
She called it “great career advice to hear that if you do your best work, day-in, day-out in the minor leagues you may someday be recruited by the team you beat in court for the majors.”
The field visit was arranged with the assistance of Mark Spansel (L ’78), a partner in the New Orleans office of Adams and Reese who has served as outside counsel to Valero.