“Natural resources” is an extraordinarily broad concept. The United States Geological Survey defines natural resources as “minerals, energy, land, water, and biota.” This definition includes the timber, metal, or stone that your house is built from, the fuel that produced the electricity that heats and cools it, the water in its pipes, and even the scenery that increases its value.
Natural resources law is occasionally confused with environmental law, but the fields are distinct. Environmental law is what you may not do; natural resources law is what you may do and how to do it. It is the body of law that organizes the discovery, development, allocation, ownership, management, and ultimately use of all the raw materials that our civilization is built from, and of the energy sources that make it run. In a practical sense, this term has come to mean the constellation of statutory, regulatory, and judicial law that customarily applies to the major natural resource industries such as mining, oil and gas, water, and forestry.
This body of law draws heavily from contract, property, and corporate law, but also has substantial overlap with environmental, tax, land use, administrative, and even tort law. The set of legal issues that confront, for example, a client wishing to organize a company to develop a particular offshore or onshore mineral deposit, is unique. Therefore, the diversity and specificity of these issues led to the emergence of specialized natural resource lawyers.
Natural resource lawyers also must be familiar with the business realities that affect their clients. They are experienced with the operational details and points of negotiation in the contracts and physical operations that are common and also unique to a particular resource. They must alert clients to potential traps for the unwary in the case law of their jurisdiction, navigate government regulations to accomplish their clients’ goals, and assemble transactions from the myriad property and operational issues that exist for each particular resource. For example, the mechanics and economics of the development of oil and gas versus hard minerals such as coal has led to dramatically different business structures and contracts to develop these distinct resources.
Some natural resource lawyers specialize in unwinding the often Gordian ownership of mineral resources, others are skilled in litigating the unique disputes that arise in the context of development joint ventures, and still others can structure natural resource projects from exploration, to development and sale. In recent years, the natural resource industries have acquired a significant international dimension; in this context natural resource lawyers can provide invaluable orientation and counsel to foreign companies investing in mineral projects in the United States, or domestic companies seeking to expand their presence globally.