The environmental policy of the United States is a federal governmental action to regulate activities that have an environmental impact in the United States. The goal of environmental policy is to protect the environment for future generations while interfering as little as possible with the efficiency of commerce or the liberty of the people and to limit inequity in who is burdened with environmental costs. As his first official act bringing in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon signed the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law on New Years Day, 1970. Also in the same year, American starts to celebrate the first earth day, which is "the big bang of U.S. environmental politics, launching the country on a sweeping social learning curve about ecological management never before experienced or attempted in any other nation"(RosenBaum, 2016, p. 9). NEPA established a comprehensive US national environmental policy and created the requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement for “major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the environment.” Eccleston has called NEPA, the world's “environmental Magna Carta”.
As a result of the environmental movement in the United States, it continued to mature in the 1970s during which several environmental laws were passed, regulating air and water pollution and forming the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Partially due to the high costs associated with these regulations, there has been a backlash from business and politically conservative interests, limiting increases to environmental regulatory budgets and slowing efforts to protect the environment. Since the 1970s, despite frequent legislative gridlock, there have been significant achievements in environmental regulation, including increases in air and water quality and, to a lesser degree, control of hazardous waste. Due to increasing scientific consensus on global warming and political pressure from environmental groups, modifications to the United States energy policy and limits on greenhouse gas have been suggested.
As established under NEPA, the US was the first nation in the world to introduce the concept of preparing an environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate the alternatives and impacts of proposed federal actions. The EIS is designed to forge federal policies, programs, projects, and plans. A large percentage of nations around the world have adopted provisions that emulate the American EIS process.
The two major policy tools for protecting the environment are rules and inducements. The United States has chosen to use rules, primarily through regulation. Such regulations can come in the form of design standards and performance standards. Performance standards specify emission levels and let those covered by the rules decide how those levels will be met. Design standards specify exactly how performance standards will be met.
Alternatively, the government can use inducements, or "market reform". Inducements are rewards and punishments used to influence people or groups. The two major types of market reforms are charge systems, such as emissions taxes, and "tradable permit systems". One type of tradable permit system is an "auction of pollution rights" in which the amount of allowed pollution is set and divided into units, which are then auctioned, giving environmental organizations the opportunity to buy the units to create a cleaner environment than originally planned. Such a plan was implemented for SO2 emissions in the 1990 Acid Rain Program and has been undertaken for greenhouse gases on a regional scale as a way to mitigate global warming.
Governmental authority on environmental issues in the United States is highly fragmented. While the EPA is the most comprehensive environmental agency, its authority on these matters is not absolute. Virtually all of the executive branch's departments have some area of environmental authority. This contributes somewhat to the cost and questionable efficacy of the United States' environmental regulation.
|Federal Agency||Environmental Responsibilities|
|White House Office||Overall policy, Agency coordination|
|Office of Management and Budget||Budget, Agency coordination and management|
|Council on Environmental Quality||Environmental policy, Agency coordination, Environmental impact statements|
|Department of Health and Human Services||Health|
|Environmental Protection Agency||Air and water pollution, Solid waste, Radiation, Pesticides, Noise, Toxic substances|
|Department of Justice||Environmental litigation|
|Department of the Interior||Public lands, Energy, Minerals, National parks|
|Department of Agriculture||Forestry, Soil, Conservation|
|Department of Defense||Civil works construction, Dredge and fill permits, Pollution control from defense facilities|
|Nuclear Regulatory Commission||License and regulate nuclear power|
|Department of State||International environment|
|Department of Commerce||Oceanic and atmospheric monitoring and research|
|Department of Labor||Occupational health|
|Department of Housing and Urban Development||Housing, Urban parks, Urban planning|
|Department of Transportation||Mass transit, Roads, Aircraft noise, Oil pollution|
|Department of Energy||Energy policy coordination, Petroleum allocation research and development|
|Tennessee Valley Authority||Electric power generation|
|Federal Emergency Management Agency||Cleaning up the natural disasters caused by climate change|
|Department of Homeland SecurityUnited States Coast Guard||Maritime and environmental stewardship, National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC)|
Fragmentation within the executive branch is duplicated in Congress and within the states. The EPA is the concern of almost two-thirds of the House of Representatives' standing committees and subcommittees and a similar percentage in the Senate. Some seventy committees and subcommittees control water quality policy, for example. Such fragmentation creates both opportunities and problems. While such a variety of committees provide enormous access for environmentalist and industry groups to lobby, the division of tasks means that no one committee or agency looks at environmental problems as a whole.
|Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry||Pesticides|
|Committee on Appropriations||Appropriations|
|Committee on the Budget||Budget|
|Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation||Oceans, Research and Development, Radiation, Toxics|
|Committee on Energy and Natural Resources||Synthetic fuels, Conservation oversight, Energy budget, Mines, Oil shale, Outer continental shelf, Strip mining|
|Committee on Environment and Public Works||Air, Drinking water, Noise, Nuclear energy, Ocean dumping, Outer continental shelf, Research and development, Solid waste, Toxics, Water|
|Committee on Foreign Relations||International environment|
|Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs||Interagency subject area|
|Committee on Labor and Human Resources||Public health|
|Committee on Small Business||Impact of environmental regulations on small business|
|Committee on Agriculture||Pesticides|
|Committee on Appropriations||Appropriations|
|Committee on the Budget||Budget|
|Committee on Oversight and Government Reform||Interagency subject area|
|Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs||Synthetic fuels, Conservation oversight, Energy budget, Mines, Oil shale, Outer continental shelf, Radiation (Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight), Strip mining|
|Committee on Energy and Commerce||Air, Drinking water, Noise, Radiation, Solid waste, Toxics|
|Committee on Natural Resources||Ocean dumping|
|Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure||Noise, Water pollution, Water resources|
|Committee on Science and Technology||Research and Development|
|Committee on Small Business||Impact of environmental regulations on small business|
|1899||Refuse Act||1975||Hazardous Materials Transportation Act|
|1918||Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918||1976||Resource Conservation and Recovery Act|
|1948||Federal Water Pollution Control Act||1976||Solid Waste Disposal Act|
|1955||Air Pollution Control Act||1976||Toxic Substances Control Act|
|1963||Clean Air Act (1963)||1977||Clean Air Act Amendments|
|1965||Solid Waste Disposal Act||1977||Clean Water Act Amendments|
|1965||Water Quality Act||1980||CERCLA (Superfund)|
|1967||Air Quality Act||1984||Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Amendments|
|1969||National Environmental Policy Act||1986||Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments|
|1970||Clean Air Act (1970)||1986||Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act|
|1970||Occupational Safety and Health Act||1986||Emergency Wetlands Resources Act|
|1972||Consumer Product Safety Act||1987||Clean Water Act Reauthorization|
|1972||Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act||1990||Oil Pollution Act|
|1972||Clean Water Act||1990||Clean Air Act (1990)|
|1972||Noise Control Act||1993||North American Free Trade Agreement|
|1973||Endangered Species Act||2003||Healthy Forests Initiative|
|1974||Safe Drinking Water Act|
There are many more environmental laws in the United States, both at the federal and state levels. The common law of property and takings also play an important role in environmental issues. In addition, the law of standing, relating to who has a right to bring a lawsuit, is an important issue in environmental law in the United States.
The history of environmental law in the United States can be traced back to early roots in common law doctrines, for example, the law of nuisance and the public trust doctrine. The first statutory environmental law was the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, which has been largely superseded by the Clean Water Act. However, most current major environmental statutes, such as the federal statutes listed above, were passed during the modern environmental movement spanning the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Prior to the passage of these statutes, most federal environmental laws were not nearly as comprehensive.
The precursor of the modern environmental movement in the United States was the early 20th century conservation movement, associated with President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. During this period, the U.S. Forest Service was formed and public concern for consumer protection began, epitomized by the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The origins of the modern environmental movement were in the publication of Rachel Carson's controversial Silent Spring, which pointed out the perils of pesticide use and rallied concern for the environment in general. Carson argued that nature deserved human protection and referred to pesticides as the atomic bomb for insects. She stated that these pesticides would cycle through the environment hurting humans and nature and thought they should be used wisely. Carson played a big role in environment activism that was later to come. Along with critiques of the misuse of technology from figures such as William Ophuls, Barry Commoner and Garrett Hardin, the ineffectiveness and criticism of the 1960s Clean Air and Clean Water acts gave a burgeoning momentum to the environmental movement.
In addition to growing public support, structural changes such as Congressional reform and new access to the courts gave environmentalists new power to enact change. The movement that formed held three key values: ecology, health, and sustainability. These values- that we depend and are interconnected with the environment, that insults to the environment can affect our health, and that we should limit our dependence on non-renewable resources- along with a uniquely sympathetic president and Congress, led to great environmental policy change in the 1970s. In 1972 the Club of Rome report came out which was a scholarly effort to gauge the severity of the environmental problem. A team of researchers concluded with one of the most alarming appraisals of the time and set off widespread debates over the findings, it's methods, and policy implications. The model was built mainly to investigate major trends of global concerns such as accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources and a deteriorating environment. They concluded that if the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion remains unchanged than the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.
One lawsuit that has been widely recognized as one of the earliest environmental cases is Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, decided in 1965 by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, prior to passage of the major federal environmental statutes. The case helped halt the construction of a power plant on Storm King Mountain in New York State. The case has been described as giving birth to environmental litigation and helping create the legal doctrine of standing to bring environmental claims. The Scenic Hudson case also is said to have helped inspire the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the creation of such environmental advocacy groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
On January 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), beginning the 1970s as the environmental decade. NEPA created the Council on Environmental Quality which oversaw the environmental impact of federal actions. Later in the year, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which consolidated environmental programs from other agencies into a single entity. The legislation during this period concerned primarily first-generation pollutants in the air, surface water, groundwater, and solid waste disposal. Air pollutants such as particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone were put under regulation, and issues such as acid rain, visibility, and global warming were also concerns. In surface water, the contaminants of concern were dissolved oxygen, bacteria, suspended and dissolved solids, nutrients, and toxic substances such as metals. For groundwater, the pollutants included biological contaminants, inorganic and organic substances, and radionuclides. Finally, solid waste contaminants from agriculture, industry, mining, municipalities, and others were put under control.
The Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972 moved environmental concerns in a new direction. The standards that they put in place were unattainable with existing technology — they were technology forcing. The standards that the EPA put into place called mainly for state implementation. Each state prepared state implementation plans (SIPs), requiring EPA approval, and each state had to request permits from the EPA to emit pollution into any surface water. Congress also provided for a massive public works program to assist in the construction of water and waste treatment plants for municipalities. The 1970 Clean Air Act also enacted deadlines and penalties for automobile emission standards in new cars, resulting in the development and adoption of catalytic converters and greatly reducing automobile pollution.
Ronald Reagan entered office skeptical of environmental protection laws and campaigned against harsh government regulation with the environmental arena in mind. As Reagan entered office, he was given two transition reports – one called "Mandate for Leadership" from the Heritage Foundation and one called "Avoiding a GOP Economic Dunkirk" from conservative Congressman David Stockman(R-MI) – that called for drastic changes in environmental regulation, primarily through administrative changes. In pursuit of this strategy, Reagan gradually reduced the EPA's budget by 30% through the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, cut the number of EPA employees, and appointed people at key agency positions who would enthusiastically follow the administration line. Appointees such as Anne Burford at the EPA and James G. Watt at the Department of the Interior were overtly hostile to environmental protection. Through his appointments, Reagan changed the operations of environmental protection from stiff regulation to "cooperative regulation."
Under this administrative strategy of regulatory relief, environmental laws were written and interpreted more favorably for industry interests. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was also given new powers to write regulations. During the first Reagan administration, the OMB was given the power to require a favorable cost-benefit analysis of any regulation before it could be implemented. This was used to delay new regulations, and changes that resulted in regulatory relief often had this requirement waived. At the beginning of the second Reagan administration, the OMB was given more power- all regulatory agencies were required to submit proposals each year for all major environmental regulation- allowing it to reduce regulatory efforts before such proposed regulations became public.
Within few months from entering the White House, Reagan removed the solar panels that his predecessor Carter had installed on the roof of the White House’s West Wing. "Reagan's political philosophy viewed the free market as the best arbiter of what was good for the country. Corporate self-interest, he felt, would steer the country in the right direction," the author Natalie Goldstein wrote in "Global Warming.". In October 2010, president Obama planned to reintroduce the solar panels on the White House roofs, after 31 years.
Environmental policy during the first Bush administration contained a mixture of innovation and restriction. George H. W. Bush appointed the first environmentalist, William Reilly, to head the EPA, along with others with strong environmental inclinations. Before accepting the appointment, Reilly secured the president’s agreement to support his pro-environment agenda and his access to the White House, but competing interests ensured conflicts. In other departments with environmental responsibilities and in White House offices, however, he appointed people who were more developmentally oriented, such as John H. Sununu, Richard Darman, and Dan Quayle. While considerable regulation was initially passed, during his last two years in office he severely restricted regulation, and in 1992, a total freeze was put on new regulations.
President H.W Bush, on July 21, 1989, sent a draft bill to congress proposing amendments to the Clean Air Act . The core of the amendments were meant to reduce acid rain by limiting sulfur dioxide emissions from coal burning plants, to bring eighty urban areas up to current air quality standards and to lower emissions from over two- hundred airborne toxic chemicals. Bush originally supported a cap and trade system to reduce chemical emissions but eventually adopted a more Republican stance .
The private-sector Council on Competitiveness (distinct from the federal Competitiveness Policy Council) was formed in 1989 to play the same role as the previous Task Force on Regulatory Relief that Bush had served on in the Reagan administration, which was to negotiate on behalf of the president for regulatory relief with the heads of federal agencies. This executive branch agency negotiated with EPA director Reilly, leading to industry-favorable rulings such as the redefinition of wetlands and the allowance of untreated toxic chemicals in local landfills (this was later reversed). While previous regulatory-relief efforts, such as Reagan's use of the Office of Budget Management, were subject to congressional oversight, the Council on Competitiveness was independent and wasn't required to keep records of its proceedings. The Council on Competitiveness received its authority from a White House memoranda and its members included; Vice President Dan Quayle, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu.
In 1992, Bush opposed international efforts at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by refusing to sign the biodiversity treaty and lobbying to remove all binding targets from the proposal on limiting global carbon dioxide emissions.
The Clinton Administration promised a change in the direction of environmental policy. Al Gore, the vice president, and appointees such as Carol Browner in EPA and Bruce Babbitt were all encouraging from an environmental standpoint. Clinton eliminated the Council on Competitiveness, returning regulatory authority to agency heads, and Clinton and Gore argued that environmental protection and economic growth were not incompatible.
Clinton's record as the governor of Arkansas however, suggested that Clinton would be willing to make compromises. Through a number of middle-of-the-road positions, on issues such as grazing fees in the West and clean-up of the Everglades, and through his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1994, Clinton dissatisfied some environmentalists. Specifically, the Green Party and its candidate Ralph Nader were outspoken in their criticism of Clinton's environmental record.
Despite criticism from environmental purists, the Clinton administration had several notable environmental accomplishments. Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development, signed the Kyoto Protocol  (although he did not submit the treaty to the Senate), and stood firm against Republican attempts after the 1994 elections to roll back environmental laws and regulations through the appropriations process. During the Clinton administration, the EPA's budget was increased, and much of the country's natural resources were put under greater protection, such as the restoration of the Everglades and the increase in size of the Everglades National Park. Important U.S. Supreme Court cases from this period included United States v. Weitzenhoff, et al.
In 2002 President George W. Bush announced an environment legislative initiative titled Clear Skies. The Clear Skies proposal's stated goals were to reduce three pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and mercury. Clear Skies was to use a market based system  by allowing energy companies to buy and trade pollution credits. The president argued that since Clear Skies would use a market based system, millions of tons of pollution would be eliminated when compared to the Clean Air Act. However, the president’s critics argued that the Clear Skies policy would weaken provisions in the Clean Air Act.
The Clean Air Act was enacted by the United States Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. The main provisions of the Clean Air Act were to control air pollution on a national level and an initiative program called New Source Review (NSR). The NSR initiative would require power plants to upgrade to anti-pollution technologies before they can expand existing facilities and add new technologies. The Clear Skies initiative proposed by the Bush administration main intention was to remove the New Source Review provision and deregulate some of the standards that the Clean Air Act required energy facilities to meet. The proposed removal of the NSR prompted nine northeastern states to file suit in federal court to prevent the new ruling. Advocates against Clear Skies viewed the removal of NSR as a weakening of existing laws and an “assault on the Clean Air Act”. Environmental advocates and their political allies would eventually prevail in defeating the Clear Skies initiative.
President Bush refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, citing fears of negative consequences for the U.S. economy. Bush also cited the fact that developing countries like India and China were exempt from Kyoto's requirements as a reason for his opposition. When President Bush withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, many of his critics alleged that he made his decision on ideology rather than on science. Suzanne Goldenberg from the Guardian wrote the Bush years are seen “as concerted assault, from the administration's undermining of the science”. Bush’s own Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman said the decision to walk away from Kyoto was "the equivalent to 'flipping the bird,' frankly, to the rest of the world". And Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said the idea of a head of state putting the science question on the table was horrifying. Bush’s critics included Jonathon Dorm, Earth Policy Institute and NASA scientist James Hansen. Dorm contended that the administration made a “covert attempt to silence the science” while Hansen alleged the administration was “trying to block data showing an acceleration in global warming”.
President Bush’s refusal to seek ratification from the Senate was widely criticized by his opponents in the United States Congress and in the media. Some of President Bush’s harshest critics claim his decision taken on the Kyoto Protocol was due to his close relationship with big oil companies. Greenpeace obtained briefing papers that revealed the administration thanked Exxon for their “active involvement” on climate change. The Guardian reported documents revealed Under-secretary Paula Dobriansky “sound out Exxon executives and other anti-Kyoto business groups on potential alternatives to Kyoto”. However, in 2003, Exxon head of public affairs Nick Thomas denied taking any position on Kyoto.
In 2001, President Bush broke a campaign environment promise by reversing a promise he had made during his presidential campaign to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Governor Bush pledged power plants would have to meet clean-air standards while promising to enact tougher policies to protect the environment. The broken campaign promise was seen as a betrayal by environmental groups. The president’s reversal on regulating carbon dioxide emissions was one of a series of controversial stands on environmental issues. For example, the Bush administration ruled that factory farms can claim they do not discharge animal waste to avoid oversight from the Clean Air Act.
The actions taken during the Bush administration were seen by environmentalists as ideological rather than scientifically based. The criticism stemmed from the president’s shifting views while he was a candidate for president and executive action taken as president. The Bush presidency was viewed as being weak on the environment due to ideology and close ties with big oil. However, Eli Lehrer from the Competitive Enterprise Institute contended that the Bush administration issued more regulations than any other administration in U.S. history.
During President Bush’s eight years in office he utilized his executive powers for a number of issues. In an effort to bypass NSR requirements, the president took executive action to “curb plant-by-plant permit reviews”. He also ordered the EPA to develop a regional regulation using a market-based system. The EPA came-up with the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). CAIR was aimed at reducing 70 percent of pollution from coal burning plants. However, CAIR would later be struck down by U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2008. Additionally, The Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR) was also introduced. CAMR was created for the purpose of establishing a permanent national cap on mercury emissions.
In the later years of the Bush administration, the president engaged in a series of environmental proposals. He called on countries with the largest greenhouse gases to establish a global goal to control emissions  and in 2008 initiated the U.S to join the United Nations to negotiate a post-2012 global climate plan after Kyoto expires. The plan calls for inclusion of both developed and developing nations to address greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, during the later years, President Bush’s position on climate changed. The president had taken steps in the later years of his presidency to address environmental criticism of his broken campaign promises, and argued that the Kyoto protocol was a plan to cripple the US economy. This stern position caused him serious credibility challenges on environmental issues both nationally and globally.
Environmental issues were prominent in the 2008 presidential election, and Barack Obama obtained a clear lead above his rival, John McCain, on the environment, winning the backing of 'all mainstream environmental groups' and public confidence on the issue. Upon election, appointments such as that of the Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu were seen as a confirmation that his presidency was serious about environmental issues.
One example of a new initiative by the Obama Administration is the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, which preserves and highlights numerous natural features, and also raises public awareness.
The environmental policy of the Donald Trump administration represents a shift from the policy priorities and goals of his predecessor, Barack Obama. While Obama's environmental agenda prioritized the reduction of carbon emissions through the use of clean renewable energy, the Trump administration has sought to increase fossil fuel use and scrap environmental regulations, which he has often referred to as an impediment to business. Trump has announced plans to pull the United States out of the 191 nation Paris agreement. At a presidential debate in March 2016, Trump said he would eliminate the EPA as a part of his plan to balance the budget.
Trump's "America First Energy Plan", focuses on increasing the use of fossil fuels without mentioning renewable energy. It would repeal many Obama policies including the Climate Action Plan and the Clean Water Rule, and limit the EPA's mission to protecting air and water quality. Within days of taking office he signed executive orders to approve two controversial oil pipelines and to require federal review of the Clean Water Rule and the Clean Power Plan. He also invited American manufacturers to suggest which regulations should be eliminated; industry leaders submitted 168 comments, of which nearly half targeted Environmental Protection Agency rules. Trump's appointments to key agencies dealing in energy and environmental policy reflected his commitment to deregulation, particularly of the fossil fuel industry. Several of his cabinet picks, such as Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy and Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, were people with a history of opposition to the agency they were named to head.
Since the environmental movement of the 1970s, the nature of environmental issues has changed. While the initial emphasis was on conventional air and water pollutants, which were the most obvious and easily measurable problems, newer issues are long-term problems that are not easily discernible and can be surrounded by controversy.
Acid deposition, in the form of acid rain and dry deposition, is the result of sulfur and nitrogen dioxide being emitted into the air, traveling and landing in a different place, and changing the acidity of the water or land on which the chemicals fall. Acid deposition in the Northeast United States from the burning of coal and in the West United States from utilities and motor vehicles caused a number of problems, and was partially exacerbated by the Clean Air Act, which forced coal power plants to use taller smoke stacks, resulting in farther transmission of sulfur dioxide in the air.
During the Carter administration, the United States undertook a risk-averse policy, acting through the EPA and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to research and control the pollutants suspected to cause acid deposition even in the face of scientific uncertainty. The Reagan administration was more risk tolerant. It argued that, given the scientific uncertainties about harm and exposure levels, new expenditures should not be undertaken that would curtail energy security and economic growth. During George H. W. Bush's presidential campaign, he called for new Clean Air Act legislation to curtail sulfur- and nitrogen-dioxide emissions. In 1990, after he was elected, amendments to the Clean Air Act were finally passed that cut emissions by over 12 million tons per year, set up a market-like system of emissions trading, and set a cap on emissions for the year 2000. These goals were achieved to some degree by the installation of industrial scrubbers.
While the initial costs in cutting emissions levels were expected to be over $4.6 billion for utilities and a 40% rise in electricity costs, the impact ended up being only about $1 billion and a 2–4% rise in electricity costs. Part of the reason for the relatively low costs is the availability of low-sulfur coal.
Ozone depletion is the reduced concentration of ozone in the Earth's stratosphere (called the ozone layer), where it serves to block much of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used beginning in the 1930s in a number of important areas, were determined in 1974 to be responsible for much of the depletion of the ozone layer. Four years later, the EPA and FDA banned CFCs in aerosol cans. As research in the 1980s indicated that the problem was worse than before, and revealed a controversial massive hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, three international agreements were made to reduce the ozone-damaging substances- the Vienna Convention, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, and a third agreement in 1990 in London. In the United States, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments phased out production of CFCs and required recycling of CFC products.
Although the phase-out of CFCs took almost two decades, the policy is generally seen as a success. While a crisis seems to be averted, due to the longevity of CFC particles in the atmosphere, the ozone layer is only expected to start showing sign of recovery by 2024.
Hazardous waste regulations began in the United States in 1976 with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to govern hazardous waste from its initial generation to final disposition (cradle-to-grave regulation) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to anticipate possible hazards from chemicals. Following the events at Love Canal, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund) was enacted in 1980 to assist in the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste disposal sites. In the mid-1980s, the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments (1984) and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) were passed.
The aim of hazardous waste regulation is to prevent harm from occurring due to hazardous waste and to pass the burdens of cleanup of hazardous waste on to the original producers of the waste. Some of the problems of hazardous waste regulation are that the negative effects of hazardous waste can be difficult to detect and controversial and that, due mainly to the large amount of hazardous waste that is generated (214 million tons in 1995), regulation can be difficult and costly.
Implementation has been difficult, with years sometimes passing between legislation passage and initial regulations. Superfund was passed in December 1980, just before Reagan took office. The first administrator of Superfund was Rita Lavelle who had worked for a major hazardous waste generator. The result was that her implementation of Superfund was designed mainly to delay regulation, and the subsequent controversy resulted in the resignation of Lavelle, EPA administrator Anne Burford, and several other top EPA personnel. In 1986, Congress passed the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, increasing funding to $9 billion and providing for studies and new technologies. By 1995, Superfund cleanup still took an average of twelve years per site, and costs for each site can range in the billions of dollars. Superfund, while showing improvements, has been probably the most criticized of environmental programs based on costs of remediation, implementation problems, and the questionable seriousness of the problems it addresses.
Underlying the policy decisions made by the United States is the concept of risk control, consisting of two parts: risk assessment and risk management. The science behind risk assessment varies greatly in uncertainty and tends to be the focus of political controversy. For example, animal testing is often used to determine the toxicity of various substances for humans. But assumptions made about expected dosage and exposure to chemicals are often disputed, and the dosage given to animals is typically much larger than what humans normally consume. While industry groups tend to take a risk-tolerant position, environmentalists take a risk-averse position, following the precautionary principle.
Another issue is the effect that chemicals can have relative to lifestyle choices. Cancer, for example, typically surface decades after first exposure to a carcinogen, and lifestyle choices are frequently more important in causing cancer than exposure to chemicals. While the governmental role in mitigating lifestyle-choice risks can be very controversial (see Smoking in the United States), chemical exposure through lifestyle choices can also occur involuntarily if the public is not properly educated (see Endocrine disruptors).
Finally, the way that threats are presented to the public plays a large role in how those threats are addressed. The threat of nuclear power and the environmental effects of pesticides are overstated, some have claimed, while many high-priority threats go unpublicized. In order to combat this discrepancy, the EPA published a Relative Risk Report in 1987, and a follow-up report published by the Relative Risk Reduction Strategies Committee in 1990 suggested that the EPA should adopt a more pro-active posture, educating the public and assigning budgetary priorities for objectively assessed high-risk threats.
Since the major environmental legislation of the 1970s was enacted, great progress has been made in some areas, but the environmental protection has come at a high price. Between 1970 and 1996, air pollutants dropped 32% while the population grew by 29%. Other pollutants have been more difficult to track, especially water pollutants. While air and water standards have been slowly improving, in 1996 70 million people still lived in counties that didn't meet EPA ozone standards. 36% of rivers and 39% of lakes didn't meet minimum standards for all uses (swimming, fishing, drinking, supporting aquatic life). In the same period, the size of the National Park Service grew from 26,000,000 acres (110,000 km2) to 83,000,000 acres (340,000 km2), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expanded by over three times to manage over 92,000,000 acres (370,000 km2). In 1995, 41% of the 960 endangered species were stable or improving.
Critics of environmental legislation argue that the gains made in environmental protection come at too great a cost. The overall cost of environmental regulation in the United States is estimated to be about 2% of the gross domestic product-similar to many other countries, but calculating the cost is challenging both conceptually (deciding what costs are included) and practically (with data from a broad range of sources). In 1994, almost $122 billion was spent on pollution abatement and control. $35 billion of that has been in direct government spending, $65 billion was spent by business, and $22 billion was spent by individuals.