Michael McCauley makes his living in the gray area where business and the environment meet.
He joined Quarles & Brady LLP right out of law school in 1977 and began practicing environmental law the following year. That area of law took off during the 1980s, and the firm’s environmental law section grew from two to 30 lawyers in the 1990s.
He helped oversee that growth while serving as the firm’s Environmental Law Section chairman from 1986 to 2007.
During that time, he has helped usher in projects that were at the center of the state’s attention. He helped We Energies get permitting for two major projects — one in Oak Creek and one in Rothschild.
In Oak Creek, McCauley represented We Energies during its $2.2 billion expansion that created two new coal-fired electrical generating units. The permitting process began in 2002, construction started in 2005, the first unit went online two years ago, and the second started operating last year.
It was the largest construction project in the state, and the fact that both units burned coal drew opposition from groups such as the Sierra Club and Clean Wisconsin.
But, McCauley said, We Energies already had a natural gas plant in Port Washington and wanted to diversify by burning coal in the two new units.
“We went through an extensive administrative and judicial review process to uphold the environmental permitting and the approval of the Public Service Commission,” he said. “We were able to win all of those appeals.”
But the process, he said, illustrates how his field is “an interesting mix of law, science, the public interest aspects, and economics.”
“The interesting part of it is developing a solution that a company can afford to implement while doing it in a way that would protect public health,” McCauley said. “It has to be figured out on a case-by-case basis. What’s right in one situation may not be the most appropriate in another situation.”
In Rothschild, McCauley faced a different challenge on behalf of We Energies. The plant, which is under construction, is a joint project with the Domtar Corp. paper company. A boiler will produce electricity for general use and steam power for Domtar’s paper mill.
But about a year and a half ago, the Environmental Protection Agency implemented new regulations controlling greenhouse gases. The Rothschild project permit was the first to go through that new type of review.
“We demonstrated that the good combustion that was designed into the boiler satisfied all the current requirements for greenhouse gas emissions,” McCauley said. “That determination was the first of its kind in the United States.”