Environmental Activism Interview with Robin Martinez

Robin Martinez (J.D.'89), environmental activist in Kansas City, Mo.

The Spring 2018 issue of the alumni magazine, Res Ipsa, explores the lives of UMKC alumni who have created innovative careers in environmental law and become activists in the field.  Kansas City lawyer, Robin Martinez (J.D ’89) spends much of his time working on environmental public policy and promoting ecologically oriented economic development. His work includes opposing fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the South Dakota Keystone XL pipeline, and advocacy for renewable energy and green infrastructure.


How did you get involved with pipeline issues?

I always had an interest in environmental issues, but as a lawyer, I never had a framework for practicing traditional environmental law. Through my work with The National Lawyers’ Guild, I was asked to help represent Dakota Rural Action, a small grassroots nonprofit organization that advocates for farming and ranching families that oppose the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline in South Dakota. We recently argued their case before the South Dakota Supreme Court. I also stepped in during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to help coordinate defense of individuals arrested during the widely publicized resistance at Standing Rock. This involved helping organize groups of lawyers to travel to North Dakota to provide pro bono representation through the Water Protector Legal Collective.

Tell us a little about the issues with Keystone XL.

Liquid pipelines like KXL require permits at the state level. In South Dakota, the original permit to build KXL was granted to TransCanada (a major pipeline company) in 2010. South Dakota statutes provide that if construction had not commenced within four years, the company would need to go back to the State Public Utilities Commission and certify they remained in compliance with all of the conditions of the original permit. Three Native American tribes, other nonprofit organizations and a number of individual citizens intervened in the case, aligning themselves with us to attempt to stop the pipeline during a nine-day long administrative agency hearing and subsequent judicial appeals.

What was your experience working on this project?

I connected with some of the coolest people I’ve ever met in my life. From other lawyers working on these issues, to environmental advocates, community organizers and people whose family farms were in the path of the pipeline. It was fun, amazing and humbling to interact with them. I really liked seeing these issues build bridges between communities you never thought would be aligned. Traditionally conservative farmers and ranchers were talking with “tree-hugging” activists and discovering they had common interests. It’s been fascinating to watch people’s consciousness transform through immersion in these issues.

How do you recommend other attorneys find projects they’re passionate about?

First, if it doesn’t interest you, don’t dive in. It will consume large portions of your life. Second, it’s all about balance. There is not a lot of money working for the public interest, so a lot of the work is pro bono. I learned the hard way you have to be careful about balancing pro bono work with paying gigs. I love these issues and causes, but you also have to make a living. Another big lesson is recognizing the threats to our environment are of such a large scope; you can’t be everywhere. That forces you to be strategic about your choices.

 What are the rewards that come with this type of work?

It is a tremendous amount of fun and feeds your soul in many ways. It’s an intellectual challenge and can be hard to wrap your brain around all the different components of environmental law, energy policy and economics and the science — but at its core, it boils down to a couple things. What level of respect do we have for our water and our land? And second, what’s the nature of political and economic power in this country, and how does that power affect our ecosystems? We have to think about what we value.

This article was featured in the Spring 2018 issue of the alumni magazine, Res Ipsa
Published: Aug 2, 2018