An environmental lawyer works within the bounds of the legal system to help ensure protection for the environment and its resources. Environmental lawyers typically help enforce and apply the various environmental protection legislation and bills passed by the federal, state or local government in a given area. This may include representing clients who have been injured by environmental damage, representing companies who have been accused of damaging the environment, helping companies understand their obligations in regards to complying with the environmental laws, or taking legal action against a company that has not complied with environmental regulation.
In the United States, much of the environmental legislation is enforced by the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an administrative agency designed to ensure that individuals and companies comply with requirements regarding the disposal of waste products, the care of soil and groundwater, and the emissions and pollutants released into the air, among other things. An environmental lawyer may work for the EPA, helping the agency carry out its mission.
The EPA within the US — and other environmental protection organizations and departments in governments worldwide — is primarily concerned with protecting several aspects of the environment. Much of the protection focuses on air and water. Global warming and water pollution are two huge concerns and, as such, an environmental lawyer may spend some of his time bringing lawsuits against a company that has polluted water and/or a company that is not following carbon emissions laws or other laws related to the release of pollutants into the air.
Under the laws in the United States, companies who cause damage to the environment, such as by polluting groundwater through the release of chemicals or by improperly disposing of toxic wastes in landfills, are required to pay for the cleanup costs. If the company does not pay up front, the money is generally paid for out of a government superfund. The company is then assessed the cleanup costs after a courtroom trial in which an attorney proves that the company is in fact responsible; this is one of the jobs of an environmental lawyer.
Private citizens as well as environmental groups can hire an environmental lawyer to assist them in their protection efforts. For example, an environmental protection group could hire a lawyer to help it get an injunction, or a legal order to cease a given behavior, against a company that is developing land that will result in the destruction of the habitat of an endangered species. A private citizen could also hire an environmental lawyer if he has consumed contaminated water as a result of a company's improper waste disposal.