Environmental Defense Center’s New Director Fights the Big Guys

Environmental Defense Center’s
New Director Fights the Big Guys

Alex Katz Punches Above His Weight
With Serious Policy Chops

By Tyler Hayden | April 20, 2023

Alex Katz | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

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Alex Katz is the new executive director of the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), that small but scrappy Santa Barbara law firm with a track record of winning David vs. Goliath cases against the oil industry, megadevelopers, and other powerful interests.

Katz will fit right in. He also likes taking on the big guys. A former journalist turned policy expert, Katz previously served as chief of staff for the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, where he helped launch its precedent-setting lawsuit against five of the world’s largest energy companies, seeking to put them on the hook for the local costs of sea-level rise. After that, he worked as a communications and climate policy aide to Congressmember Barbara Lee.

We caught up with Katz as he settles into his new role, relocating his wife and daughter from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara, and exploring our road biking routes, including the Gibraltar climb that he tackled last weekend. This is an edited version of our conversation. 

Alex Katz with his daughter, Mila, at Haskell’s Beach | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Tell me more about the Oakland lawsuit.  Big parts of Oakland are going to be underwater by the end of the century and preventing that is going to cost a lot of money. The lawsuit is like one of the tobacco lawsuits from the ’80s, where companies knowingly lied about the damage their products were causing. And under California law, if you know your product is going to cause harm and you lie about it, you’re liable for the damage. The case is still going on.

How will you translate that experience to the EDC?  The EDC has been fighting oil companies for almost 50 years, stopping them from building more platforms, doing more drilling, putting all kinds of oil infrastructure along the coast. And we have to continue doing that because they’re going to stay here for as long as they can make money.

But the next phase of the fight, when they do leave, is how do we prevent them from just selling off assets that are rusting and falling apart, or from just abandoning wells they’ve already drilled? How do we hold them accountable for making sure those things are not causing environmental harm for the next 50 years?

What made you want to uproot and come work here?  What’s really impressive is that the EDC has been going up against companies like Exxon, where they will literally have dozens of attorneys in the courtroom and we have two, and we’ve still been able to consistently win over and over again. It’s a small group with an outsized impact. Take the fracking case. That outcome — the federal government now can’t approve any new permits — applies to all of Southern California, not just the Santa Barbara Channel.

What’s also interesting to me about this group is when they win something, you don’t necessarily see the result. Because if we stop a processing station from being built, the victory is what you don’t see. Without the EDC and the partners it has worked with over the years, this part of the coast would look more like Houston with barges, more platforms, and more pipelines.

What other areas of protection is the EDC focused on?  We and SBCAN (Santa Barbara County Action Network) just celebrated a big victory near Lompoc where our partnership helped save 150 acres of prime farmland from development. I have a personal perspective on this, because I grew up in Orange County and I’m old enough to remember when it was an agricultural county. All of that has disappeared, and it didn’t even take a lifetime — just a few decades. We’ve seen this happen all over California, where suburban sprawl becomes a self-perpetuating thing and it’s easy to lose the land quickly.

There are other ways to build, like infill development, where you don’t end up paving over farms and losing a really critical resource. Or losing those businesses, because once they’re gone, they can’t come back. Local farming is also incredibly important for the climate — they feed our region so we’re not trucking food across the country and burning tons of fuel to get it here. 

How does environmental justice fit into your mission?  It’s a big priority right now and something that’s built into all of the EDC’s work — serving underrepresented communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution for generations. I really think of it as a civil rights issue. The economic injustice, the social injustice — it’s the history of some of our cities. Don’t forget, part of our service area is Ventura County, and we recently had a big case in Oxnard where we helped a coalition stop the construction of the Puente Power Plant, which would have been the fourth fossil fuel power plant on that community’s beaches. 

Besides handling marquee cases, what’s the day-to-day at the EDC like?
  There’s always a lot of great work going on behind the scenes. For instance, when we’re doing a survey or creek cleanup, we’ll notice that somebody has run a pipe from their property to a creek and may be dumping some kind of chemical. It happens pretty often. We’ll talk to the property owner to remove the pipe or talk to regulators and have violations issued.

Another example of this kind of work — where the EDC really has the back of the community — is our watershed director Brian Trautwein was recently driving through town and noticed Caltrans cutting down a bunch of trees. He pulled over and asked if they had a permit. They did not, so now they have to replant all those trees and do other remediation work there.

As we emerge from COVID hibernation, what challenges does the EDC face?  We’ve had a couple of very hard years, especially with former director Owen Bailey passing. He was a real warrior for this community and for the planet.

I think people don’t always remember that we do free and low-cost legal services, so we really rely on the community’s support. The EDC has an incredible legacy, and as the new person coming in, I see my job as continuing that legacy.

The Environmental Defense Center’s annual Green & Blue fundraiser event will take place June 11 at Rancho La Patera & Stow House in Goleta. For tickets and sponsorship opportunities, visit environmentaldefensecenter.org.


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