Numeracy for Energy and Environmental Lawyers


32 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2018 Last revised: 27 Sep 2018

See all articles by Robert A. James

Robert A. James

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

Date Written: August 22, 2018


Many lawyers are uncomfortable with numbers, and in fact entered the profession to get away from them. But numeracy is essential for understanding individual activities and public policy issues, particularly or distinctively for energy and environmental practices. This article identifies reasons that lawyers find quantitative references to be intimidating, confusing and potentially misleading.

The author articulates a three-stage process. First, grapple with the number itself: understand the energy dimension, the measurement unit, and the order of magnitude. Then, appreciate the static context of the number -- how it is being used to describe a snapshot of the activity or issue. Finally, make a dynamic assessment of the relevance of the number and the static picture to changes over time, between regions, or across other energy sources or uses.

The article helps math-phobic attorneys separate energy from power; distinguish watts, joules and British thermal units (BTUs) from watt-hours; and put very large and very small quantities into a practical context. The recommended process is applied to world population, GDP and carbon emissions measures; competing data from oil industry and electric power industry sources; and the pathways to greater energy efficiency through policy and technology improvements. A chart summarizing the key conversions in legal and policy discussions is attached as an Appendix.

Keywords: Numeracy, Energy Units, Joule, Watt, Conversion, Measurement

JEL Classification: Q40, Q50

Suggested Citation

James, Robert A., Numeracy for Energy and Environmental Lawyers (August 22, 2018). 8 JOURNAL OF LAW (5 J. LEGAL METRICS) 33 (2018), Available at SSRN:

Robert A. James (Contact Author)

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP ( email )

Four Embarcadero Center, 22nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94111
United States


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