After four decades of practicing law, it’s axiomatic to Carol Dinkins ’71 that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Twenty-five years ago when she was appointed by President Reagan as the first female deputy attorney general, the second-highest official in the Justice Department, the biggest issues were immigration and drugs. (“Some things don’t change,” she notes, ruefully.) And, in a previous stint as assistant attorney general in charge of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, she says the goal at the time encompassed the same four words being pursued today: “Clean air, clean water.” Dinkins has pursued those four environmentally friendly words during her entire career, which now includes sharing her expertise as a member of the recently formed University of Houston Energy Advisory Board.
Dinkins is a longtime partner at Houston-based Vinson & Elkins LLP, where she heads the Environmental Practice Group, and is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading environmental litigators. She started early, going from law school commencement to the front of the classroom as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston’s Texas Law Institute of Coastal and Marine Resources. Two years later she moved downtown. “I was the third environmental lawyer at V&E,” she says. “One was doing air, one was doing water and they told me I could do everything else.” She quickly found her element – and over the years she broke through several glass ceilings at the firm. In 1979, she became the first woman to make partner at V&E, and later she became the first woman on the firm’s management committee and then its first female section head.
To be sure, some things have changed in environmental law since 1971. The Superfund act, approved in the waning days of the Carter Administration, kept her extremely busy during her first tour in D.C. “I sometimes testified in the morning and then again in the afternoon,” she says – with all of the stints before microphones “interrupting” her pursuit of the first cases to be litigated under the new law. She also started the Justice Department’s environmental criminal enforcement program, and she is convinced that her work has made a difference. “There has been an enormous reduction of hazardous waste and waste in general over the years,” she says, “and an enormous improvement in the regulatory area.”
But more needs to be done, she adds, especially with the ongoing focus on climate change and the effects of emissions generated by our reliance on oil and coal as fuel sources. “I think there are a lot of things that could be done,” she says, “but a very obvious one would be further development of natural gas as an energy source. There are huge reserves in the United States.” She ticks off several reasons why natural gas might be a near-term answer to energy dependence as well as climate change: “The technology exists to extract it; it is cleaner in every sense than oil, and certainly coal; it is a very efficient fuel; and there is a lot of it!” In the short term, she suggests houses and commercial buildings could be upgraded and made more energy efficient with improved insulation and lighting, “something that people really don’t focus on.”
Through her work on the 11-member Energy Advisory Board, Dinkins is committed to making UH “The Energy University,” as envisioned by President and Chancellor Renu Khator. “I would like to see the University of Houston become a leader in the development and efficient management of energy resources,” Dinkins says. “We should become the go-to resource for energy management, harnessing all of the university’s resources.” She praised the creation of the board, which is charged with strategic planning and external coordination of energy resources, calling it “an exceptional effort” on Khator’s part. Asked to review her fellow board members, she instantly responds with a compliment: “Very dynamic and well-informed key players.” Anyone who knows Dinkins or works with her would return exactly the same compliment.