Major Environmental Laws

We depend on many different laws to protect the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the biodiversity that surrounds us. Most of these laws work to negotiate a balance between the differing interests and needs of various groups, or between private interests and the public interest. In this section we’ll examine some of our most important environmental policies.

NEPA (1969) establishes public oversight

The cornerstone of U.S. environmental policy is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, NEPA is a model for many other countries.

It does three important things:

(1) it establishes the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the oversight board for general environmental conditions,

(2) it directs federal agencies to take environmental consequences into account in decision making, and

(3) it requires that an environmental impact statement (EIS) be published for every major federal project that is likely to have an important effect on environmental quality.

NEPA doesn’t forbid environmentally destructive activities if they comply otherwise with relevant laws, but it requires that agencies admit publicly what they plan to do. If embarrassing information is revealed publicly, it becomes harder for agencies to ignore public opinion. An EIS can provide valuable information about government actions to public interest groups that wouldn’t otherwise have access to these resources. What kinds of projects require an EIS? The activity must be federal and it must be major, with a significant environmental impact. Whether specific activities meet these characteristics is often a subjective decision. Each case is unique and depends on context, geography, the balance of beneficial versus harmful effects, and whether any areas of special cultural, scientific, or historical importance might be affected. A complete EIS for a project is usually time-consuming and costly. The final document is often hundreds of pages long and generally takes six to nine months to prepare. Sometimes just requesting an EIS is enough to sideline a questionable project. In other cases, the EIS process gives adversaries time to rally public opposition and information with which to criticize what’s being proposed. If agencies don’t agree to prepare an EIS voluntarily, citizens can petition the courts to force them to do so.

Every EIS must contain the following elements: (1) purpose and need for the project, (2) alternatives to the proposed action (including taking no action),


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