Despite these obstacles, the seeds of environmental law germinated several decades ago, and by 1970 its roots were firmly planted. While the term “environmental law” wasn't formally coined until 1969, numerous natural resources and pollution control laws were on the books far beforehand. Early federal regulation of forests, minerals, and other resources favored private economic exploitation. Beginning within the early to mid-20th century, Congress enacted a group of natural resources laws that gently jettisoned this one-sided approach and commenced embracing the goals of preservation and conservation. Early laws like the Antiquities Act of 1935 set the stage for a series of even more protective ones within the 1960s, culminating with the Wilderness Act of 1964 and therefore the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. At an equivalent time, Congress passed variety of unpolluted air and water laws within the 1960s that served as precedents for even more ambitious lawmaking to return .
Public consciousness of environmental issues was also growing. Publications like Silent Spring—Rachel Carson’s 1962 missive against pesticide use—captured the nation’s attention. So did highly visible environmental disasters later within the decade, including the 1969 oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast and, famously, the burning of the polluted Cuyahoga River. By 1970 the stage had been set: a diffuse body of environmental law already existed, and therefore the public supported more.
The 1970s was a seminal decade for environmental protection. Its first year saw three major accomplishments: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, and therefore the creation of the EPA. NEPA alone was groundbreaking. Often called the “Magna Carta of environmental law,” it articulated a broad declaration of national policy to guard the environment. NEPA’s action-forcing requirements were even more significant than its aspirational policy statements. The law required federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions and to spot alternatives less likely to harm the environment. This “look-before- you-leap” approach changed the way the federal bureaucracy operated and proved—along with the law’s information disclosure requirements—NEPA’s most enduring legacy.
Congress enacted nearly twenty-four environmental laws over the course of the last decade , and it did so with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. The federal environmental laws of the 1970s were dramatic, sweeping, and uncompromising. additionally to NEPA, there have been public health and pollution control laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. there have been also natural resources laws like the species Act, Natural Forest Management Act, and Marine Mammal Protection Act. The natural resources laws of the 1970s were particularly noteworthy for the balance they struck in favor of conservation and against exploitation. the foremost sweeping—the species Act—went even farther, making the prevention of extinction its overriding policy objective.
The 1970s also witnessed the emergence of the criticism and controversy that face environmental law to the present day. Ironically, Nixon began the last decade together of environmental law’s biggest supporters but ended his term a skeptic of the very laws he initially championed. Controversy arose in other corners, too. Some environmentalists were dissatisfied with the pace of progress, while regulated industries argued that EPA was overreaching. By the top of the last decade , the federalist and regulatory reform movements that might later flourish had begun to require shape. Nonetheless, Congress continued passing far-reaching laws, and therefore the courts—including the Supreme Court—broadly interpreted them both in terms of their jurisdictional reach and their regulatory rigor.
The 1980s: Consensus Breaks Down
The 1980s were tumultuous years that saw numerous challenges to environmental law—but within the end confirmed its surprising persistence. Nixon may have begun his administration as a cheerleader for environmental law and ended as a skeptic, but President Reagan left little question about where he stood on the body of laws enacted within the 1970s. Reagan aligned himself with the “Sagebrush Rebels,” a movement of western opponents of federal ownership of public lands. Immediately after his inauguration, he launched a cabinet-level task force on “regulatory relief” that suspended numerous pending regulations and encouraged industry to focus on particularly burdensome ones. Similarly, he signed an executive order requiring analysis of major rules and giving the Office of Management and Budget significant authority to review and shape regulations.
The heads of Reagan’s Department of the Interior and EPA—James Watt and Anne Gorsuch (mother of now U.S. Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch, and therefore the first woman to steer the agency)—were openly hostile toward the agencies they led. Watt described the inside Department as “oppressive,” and Gorsuch drew fire for attempting to chop EPA’s budget by the maximum amount together third. Both eventually left their posts with controversy in their wake (Gorsuch’s refusal to show over documents to Congress led to an inter-branch confrontation and therefore the ultimate perjury conviction of 1 of her assistants). Ironically, Watt and Gorsuch were such lightning rods that they undermined Reagan’s environmental agenda. While Watt succeeded in expanding oil, gas, and mineral leasing on public lands, he and Gorsuch did not achieve many of the large reversals of environmental protection that Reagan supported.
Indeed, environmental law not only withstood challenges but grew and expanded during the 1980s. President Carter ended his term in 1980 by signing two key laws. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act reaffirmed federal stewardship of public lands in Alaska. and therefore the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, enacted in response to the toxic industrial waste crisis at Love Canal and other abandoned and inactive hazardous waste sites across the country, created a dramatic new liability program that forced polluting industries to buy the value of toxic industrial waste cleanup. Congress also amended and strengthened existing laws, like the Clean Water Act and therefore the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, over the course of the last decade . Reflecting Congress’s dwindling trust within the Executive Office of the President , the new laws were increasingly prescriptive and fewer deferential to agency expertise; they added tough new deadlines on EPA’s implementation of latest regulatory programs, and that they imposed even stricter controls on industry. Finally, Congress reaffirmed the importance of data disclosure that it first embraced in NEPA, passing the Emergency Planning and Community Right to understand Act of 1986. Enacted within the wake of a factory explosion in Bhopal, India, the law required industry to tell communities when it used and released dangerous substances.
The 1990s: Partisan Gridlock
The political makeup of the federal changed dramatically within the 1990s. President George Bush, like Nixon, marked the start of his term with environmental accomplishments, signing the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments into law. And like Nixon, Bush ended his term a skeptic, proposing to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and only grudgingly attending the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The election of President Clinton changed the chief branch’s approach to environmental law, but countervailing changes within the composition of Congress and therefore the courts led to increasing conflicts over environmental goals and policies.
In 1994, Republican congressional candidates swept into power, capturing control of the House and Senate. As a part of its “Contract with America,” the 104th Congress proposed legislation to elevate the rights of landowners, require analysis of environmental laws, and single out environmental programs for disproportionate budget cuts. While his campaign for the presidency stressed the economy and not a green agenda, Clinton found political advantage in fighting Congress’s proposed environmental reforms—and few ultimately became law. This same partisan gridlock prevented the legislative overhauls that characterized the previous 20 years . Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and EPA administrator Carol Browner responded by pursuing an activist, ambitious lawmaking agenda by administrative regulation. Congress successively sought to dam new regulations by attaching “riders,” or unrelated policy provisions, to its annual spending bills.
Controversy, gridlock, and therefore the demise of bipartisanship were hallmarks of environmental lawmaking within the 1990s. These hallmarks have continued throughout the present Bush administration , which suspended a number of Clinton-era environmental regulations immediately upon taking office. The Bush administration also drew fire for promoting energy and national forest policies that emphasized exploitation of natural resources. When Congress took up these issues, it divided largely on party lines. This continuing deterioration of bipartisanship stands in stark contrast to the broad congressional support that environmental law drew from both parties in its early decades.
The courts also underwent major changes beginning within the 1990s, as years of conservative judicial appointments by Presidents Reagan and Bush came to fruition. The courts became increasingly skeptical of the efficacy of environmental protection laws. during a series of cases narrowing Congress’s authority to manage economic activity under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, the Supreme Court called into question the very foundation on which laws like the species Act rest.
While domestic environmental law persisted, international environmental law became environmental law’s most engaging and dynamic area within the 1990s. By the top of the last decade , the United Nations listed approximately 1,000 international environmental agreements of 1 kind or another—far greater than the 52 agreements that existed in 1970. At an equivalent time, concern about the intersection of trade and therefore the environment, also as energy and therefore the environment, arose.
The Future
The 21st century has brought new challenges, none greater than heating . the foremost powerful and wealthiest nations within the world are the best explanation for greenhouse emission emissions; against this , many of the poorest parts of the world are most immediately and devastatingly threatened. Effective control of worldwide warming, moreover, would require not only major reductions by the world’s most powerful countries but also the agreement of developing nations now caught during a bind between economic development and therefore the environment.
In short, environmental lawmaking to deal with heating will got to conquer an equivalent quite hurdles it's always faced, which have made environmental lawmaking so difficult and controversial. the sole significant difference is that the hurdles are now much higher in light of worldwide warming’s extraordinary spatial and temporal dimensions. Lawmaking to deal with heating would require sweeping international and domestic laws, the creation of latest international lawmaking institutions, and maybe also new domestic institutions. The challenges are enormous, but so too are environmental law’s past achievements and future aspirations.

About the Author: Safeer Ahmad finds his interests in Pakistan and comparative politics, public expenditure and budgeting, and government-business relations.