Meet our Faculty Advisory Board Member and Research Fellow James Coleman, Associate Professor of Law at SMU, and learn more about his work and research.
How did you first become interested in energy law?
My first two jobs were in butterfly genetics and as a high school physics teacher, so I wanted to work in an area of law related to science. I particularly like how energy, like biology or physics, explains so much of the world we see around us: why do people live where they do, how do cities grow, and which nations have growing prosperity.
You are part of a group called Energy Tradeoffs, which promotes awareness and discussion about the difficult tradeoffs in the decarbonization of the energy sector. What motivated you to be part of this project?
Life is full of tradeoffs. Our energy system has been shaped by human needs and desires and all of our attempts to expand and improve it face difficult tradeoffs. At the same time, public debates often pretend that these tradeoffs don’t exist, because politicians rarely admit that their proposals have downsides. And energy is such a fast-moving and lucrative field that a lot of the publicly available analysis is from groups seeking to push an agenda rather than inform. The Energy Tradeoffs project that we’ve started with academics from around the country fills that gap by presenting interviews with energy experts explaining the difficult choices that we face as we transform our energy industry.
In February 2021, there were massive power failures across Texas. From your perspective, is there something Texas should do to prevent this from happening at such a large scale in the future?
The blackouts were a catastrophic failure: Texas power producers were, at one point, 27 GW short of the energy that Texas consumers needed. California only produces about 20 GW of power on average, so Texas was more than “one California” short of the power it needed. This is unacceptable. There are hard questions about connecting with other national grids or paying for backup power or gas storage. But there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that we unquestionably must address. The grid manager needs to plan for a wider range of scenarios. We also need to end the confusion that led power suppliers to cut electricity to gas pipelines that power plants need, which led gas suppliers to cut off some power plants. And we need to have backup pricing systems. The outrageously high prices occurred because our grid manager’s pricing system malfunctioned in the crisis, so regulators felt compelled to simply set the prices to the maximum while power was short.
Can you share with us some of the current research you’re working on?
I’m working on two big projects right now. One is supported by the Texas-Mexico Center, which I’m writing with Guillermo Garcia Sanchez at Texas A&M. It is about Texas as the heart of North American energy trade. We’re examining some of the growing threats to trade between the United States and Mexico because of increased U.S. opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure and energy exports and Mexico’s rollback of its energy reforms. And we’re creating a menu of policy solutions that could provide greater certainty to help Texas and Mexico win the full benefits of cross-border energy trade.
The second project concerns state roadblocks to national and international energy trade. Moving to a cleaner energy system will require linear infrastructure. Coal and oil built the modern world because they are easy to transport and store where they are needed. But we can now cheaply produce natural gas and clean electricity from alternative energy sources—the challenge is that we need natural gas pipelines and power lines to get these cleaner energy options to consumers at an affordable price. But it is getting harder and harder to get permits for these energy projects and states and local governments are finding new ways to veto projects that they don’t like. This project considers legal reforms that will address this problem.
Why did you decide to become a Faculty Advisory Board Member of the Texas-Mexico Center?
The focus of my research is energy transport and trade, so it’s a thrill to be in Texas, the center of global energy markets. And Texas’s most important energy trade relationship is with Mexico, so SMU is very lucky to have this one-of-a-kind center focused on this crucial state-to-nation relationship. It’s an exciting time to be working with the Center on our beautiful campus here at the center of the nation’s fastest growing metro, working on issues that will be central to the future of our continent.