Environmental law expert Richard Lazarus ’79 has been appointed the executive director of a new bipartisan commission created by President Barack Obama ’91 to examine the causes of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In his new position, Lazarus, a Georgetown University faculty member who served as a visiting professor at Harvard during the most recent winter term, is charged with hiring a staff to support the seven-member commission, which includes School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Cherry A. Murray and is to be led jointly by former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William K. Reilly ’65 and former U.S. Senator Robert Graham ’62 of Florida.

The fact that all three men are Law School alums turned out to be a fine icebreaker when Lazarus was called to interview for the job.  Harvard, Lazarus recalled, was the first thing mentioned when he entered the room, and the three went on to compare notes on their favorite classrooms. (The soon-to-be-Executive Director chose Austin Hall East.)

Installed in late June, Lazarus is adapting to the breakneck tempo of mobilizing to outfit a commission whose establishment, in an executive order on May 22, came in response to a disastrous spill from an offshore British Petroleum well that began after a rig explosion in late April and continues to send thousands of gallons of oil a day into the Gulf.  The group’s first formal meeting may come as soon as mid-July, and while hiring figures remain uncertain, Lazarus’ best estimates, he said, would put the number of staffers necessary to support the commission at 35.

“The current pace is different than normal academic summer pace—both for me and my student research assistant who thought she had signed on to a very different kind of job,” said Lazarus, who has been receiving nearly 300 e-mails a day—up from normal daily traffic of about 40—since taking on his new responsibilities.  Plans have been rearranged: Georgetown has given him a leave of absence from teaching for the year, a trip to China with his son has been postponed, and a course that he has taught each of the past three summers with friend and former classmate Chief Justice John G. Roberts ’79 has also been put aside.

“The basic decision process was that this was an enormous opportunity for public service,” Lazarus said of accepting the position.

A former assistant to the solicitor general and a veteran of some 40 cases before the Supreme Court, Lazarus has maintained his ties to Cambridge, returning to HLS as a visiting professor in the winter of 2002 and for the full 2008-2009 academic year before his stint this past winter.  He was noted in 2008 for his dynamic approach in an Advanced Environmental Law course in which students were able to engage with advocates on both sides of a developing Supreme Court case.  (Lazarus was joined in his own most recent case before the nation’s highest court—Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms—by co-counsel and fellow alum Lawrence Robbins ’78.)

—Christian Flow