Starting this month, John Suttles will be serving in a new role at SELC: Director of Litigation and Regional Programs. This position is both new to Suttles and new to SELC. For the past 11 years, Suttles focused on litigation from our Chapel Hill office. As SELC began planning for the Jan.1, 2016 retirement of Deputy Director Jeff Gleason, the organization took the chance to fine tune its management structure to best serve SELC’s nine offices. Now Founder and Director Rick Middleton will continue his leadership while Suttles will take on new responsibilities coordinating legal strategies and casework throughout SELC’s six-state region.
Prior to his SELC tenure, Suttles was a partner in a New Orleans law firm for 14 years and served as deputy director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic for three years. He also received his law degree, with honors, and a Masters of Law, with distinction, from Tulane. The Virginia native received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia.
Below is a Q&A with Suttles.
What’s the most memorable case you’ve worked on with SELC?
My most memorable case actually is a constellation of cases – fighting existing and proposed new coal-fired power plants in the Southeast. In 2005, there were 246 individual coal-fired units at 74 power plants across our region. These plants emitted over 90% of the carbon dioxide, soot, and smog air pollution in the Southeast; and nearly 100% of the mercury, arsenic, and selenium deposited in our lakes, rivers, and streams. If those statistics were not dire enough, the utility industry proposed building nine large, new coal-fired units at six separate facilities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
It was clear to us that this was an urgent situation and that SELC had to devote significant resources and the full weight of our legal expertise to stop and correct this problem. First, working closely with our lawyers in these states, we fought the proposed new plants with every effective tool we could develop in every forum we could think of, from zoning boards, to utility commissions, to state and federal courts. Our opponents were some of the richest corporations in the country; and they hired big law firms to represent them. We were undaunted, and we defeated seven of these nine proposed new plants.
Next, we did the same thing with the existing coal fleet. Today, with actual retirements, binding commitments to retire, and announced retirements, our work has been instrumental in shutting down 126 of 246 existing coal-fired units in the Southeast, totaling close to 20,000 megawatts of capacity, representing over 33% of the coal-fired capacity that operated in the Southeast in 2005.
What issues are you most excited to tackle in your new role?
Over the past nearly 11 years, I have lived my professional dream by working at SELC. When I entered law school in 1985, I did so with the desire to do exactly what I’m now doing with an organization exactly like SELC.
The thing that excites me most about this new role is the opportunity to work more closely with my colleagues throughout the region to develop and implement effective strategies in all of our program areas. I see this as a truly exciting time and a great opportunity for SELC. Over the last 15 years, we have grown from a total of nine attorneys in two offices, to 70 attorneys with offices in all six of our Southeastern states. As recently as 2007, we had only five attorneys focusing on litigation; we now have 27 attorneys who focus all or most of their time on litigation.
The fact is, we are bigger than we have ever been; we are more sophisticated and more nimble; we have more resources and more expertise than we ever have. We are the best organization to protect the region’s most important and vulnerable natural resources; unlike any other organization, we are able to go toe-to-toe against the biggest polluters in the country...and win.
So, as I’ve stepped back and taken a hard look at the organization to prepare for this new role, I’m not only incredibly impressed with where we are now, I am also excited and absolutely confident about where we are headed. SELC will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. With the foundation we’ve built, with the resources we have acquired, and with the team we’ve assembled, I am confident that our second 30 years are going to be even better and more successful than our first. I’m excited to be part of that.
What do you see as the key environmental issue facing the Southeast?
I think the biggest threat to the Southeast is our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. This is manifest in many ways: from our outsized contribution to global climate change—I was stunned when I started this work to learn that, due mainly to carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in our region, our six states, if considered as a country, would be the seventh biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet—to industrial farming practices that pollute our waters; to cutting and dissecting our pristine forests; to rampant sprawl that devours our open spaces.
What’s one unexpected development or reality of environmental issues in the Southeast that you’ve encountered while at SELC?
By now, I shouldn’t be, but I am continually astonished by political leaders who ignore irrefutable science to approve highly destructive practices that benefit a few political insiders at the expense of the public. Increasingly, this seems to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s one of the big reasons SELC is so needed. When politicians and bureaucrats won’t do their job protect our air, our water, and our special places, we will use the law and the courts to do so.
What is your dream legal victory for SELC?
I dream of seeing the region fully transition from fossil-fuel-based energy generation to clean, sustainable renewable energy and energy efficiency resources. In 1931, Thomas Edison expressed his fervent hope that we would harness solar energy long before we exhausted our supplies of fossil fuels. I see us helping to fulfill Mr. Edison’s exhortation.
Where is your favorite place to be outside?
I was born in the mountains of Virginia and reared on its beaches. Since I was a child, I’ve camped and hiked the southern Appalachian Mountains; I’ve paddled the rivers and salt marshes of the Southeastern coast; and I grew up surfing and scuba diving in the Atlantic Ocean. All of these places are special to me. But if I had to choose one, my favorite place is about 60 feet beneath warm, clear tropical waters.