U.S. Environmental Policy, Part I: the Past 50 Years
As a national phenomenon, the framework for modern environmental policy and regulation in the United States began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Prior to the 1960s, the issue of pollution (largely in the form of air and water degradation) was considered to be a state and local problem.
The U.S. federal government’s perspective was that interference in state issues would be a violation of state sovereignty. But about 40 years ago, general awareness began to change. Both the world population and national population were exploding. Industrial development across the U.S. was creating increasing amounts of unclean air and water. Also, significant individuals and events helped to educate people about the growing environmental threats to their health and quality of life, along with dangers to ecosystems and wildlife. Examples range from the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book on the dangers of pesticides to the environment, to the first Earth Day in 1970.
During this time, it became apparent that leaving pollution controls up to each state did not result in an effective environmental policy. One catalyst for policy change was a major oil spill near Santa Barbara, California (Hemphill 2005). Operating in waters beyond the regulatory authority of the California government, Union Oil cut corners on safety during construction of its oil platforms while under authority of the U.S. Geological Survey. On the downside, the oil pipe rupture created an immense ecological disaster. On the upside, it served to generate public awareness about environmental regulations and created a wave of outrage with enough reform momentum to get from California to the White House.
NEPA – the foundation
In 1969, shortly after the Santa Barbara oil spill, Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Still in force today, NEPA is the basis for other U.S. environmental laws and is considered a major guiding tool for regulating federal actions that would have significant effects on environmental quality. At the core, the main regulatory power in NEPA is the Environmental Impact Statement or EIS. The EIS documents possible environmental effects of an action and presents alternate actions. The EIS is used for almost any federal action that could damage the environment. It assures that the associated agency involved will go through a process of identifying and assessing potential adverse effects, developing feasible alternatives, and providing proper notice to – and receiving comments from – both the public and federal agencies with jurisdiction or expertise over the planned action.
Through NEPA, the goal is to identify problems before they occur, and prevent actions that are deemed too severe to proceed. Beyond this specific environmental assessment requirement, NEPA is also significant for the general policy guidelines it creates. Those guidelines affect all other subsequent environmental regulation.
Additionally, NEPA published a statement with the following important, intent-setting, although somewhat vague, goals:
- to encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment
- to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man
- to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation (NEPA 1982)
By itself, such a statement does little. However, in the years following NEPA’s passage, these policy goals have resulted in some very effective environmental legislation.
- the Clean Air Act
- the Clean Water Act
- the US Water and Wetlands Policy
- the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- the Toxic Substance Control Act or TSCA
- the recent tightening of chemical regulations under TSCA
All these are major federal regulations and actions designed to protect people and the environment in a manner that would not have been possible under individual state environmental laws. The hope is that standards and regulations on a federal level make a safer world easier to achieve and report on for everyone involved. The American legacy, not to mention the health and happiness of the nation’s grandchildren, depends on the environmental stewardship initiatives we set in place now.
Effective policy will require agencies to set proper rules and oversight for major regulatory efforts, plus enforcement of violations. If a policy proves not to be overly expensive for the government or business, it stands up to legal challenges, and it effectively lowers emissions, such a policy would be deemed a success. If it is costly and doesn’t work, the whole thing could be scrapped, possibly making any future attempts at policy initiatives more difficult.
Clearly, policy involves a lot of “if” statements and just the right circumstances and political players in order to be effective. Gridlock and too many layers of bureaucracy are common problems with the system. But there is a window of opportunity. When:
–a problem is severe enough, and
–there is a way to fix it that most people can support
–then: a policy solution is often possible.
Job and economic concerns, special interest groups on both sides of the political fence, taxes, property rights and political ideologies tend to have a way of altering what might seem like an “ideal” policy from an environmental perspective, but overall the system we have does serve to represent all interests and attempt to provide a level of fairness to all parties affected. The expectation is that democracy in this regard doesn’t preclude rational progress, sustainable development, or environmental stewardship.
This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II will run next week.
Chris Watts currently serves as an Environmental Regulation Expert at Actio Corporation in Portsmouth, NH. He is pursuing advanced studies in Environmental Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.
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