The U.S. Government's Role in Environmental Protection

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The regulation of practices that affect the environment is a relatively recent development in the United States, but it is an excellent example of government intervention in the economy for a social purpose. Since the collective rise in consciousness about the health of the environment, such government intervention in business has become a hot topic not only in the United States but also across the globe.

The Rise of Environmental Protection Policies

Beginning in the 1960s, Americans became increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of industrial growth. Engine exhaust from growing numbers of automobiles, for instance, was blamed for smog and other forms of air pollution in large cities. Pollution represented what economists call an externality—a cost that the responsible entity can escape but that society as a whole must bear. With market forces unable to address such problems, many environmentalists suggested that the government had a moral obligation to protect the earth's fragile ecosystems, even if doing so required some economic growth to be sacrificed. In response, a slew of laws was enacted to control pollution, including examples such as the 1963 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

In December 1970, environmentalists achieved a major goal with the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) through an executive order signed by then-president Richard Nixon. The creation of the EPA brought together several federal programs charged with protecting the environment into a single government agency. The EPA was founded with the goal of protecting human health and the environment by enforcing regulations passed by Congress.

Responsibilities of the EPA

The EPA sets and enforces tolerable limits of pollution, and it establishes timetables to bring polluters into line with standards, an important aspect of its work since most of these requirements are recent and industries must be given reasonable time, often several years, to conform to new standards. The EPA also has the authority to coordinate and support the research and anti-pollution efforts of state and local governments, private and public groups, and educational institutions. Furthermore, regional EPA offices have the power to develop, propose, and implement approved regional programs for comprehensive environmental protection. While the EPA delegates some responsibilities such as monitoring and enforcement to state governments, it retains the authority to enforce policies through fines, sanctions, and other measures granted by the federal government.

The Impact of Environmental Policies

Data collected since the EPA began its work in the 1970s shows significant improvements in environmental quality. There has been a nationwide decline in virtually all air pollutants. However, in 1990, many Americans believed that still greater efforts to combat air pollution were needed. In response, Congress passed important amendments to the Clean Air Act that were signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. The legislation incorporated an innovative market-based system designed to secure a substantial reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions, which produce what is more commonly known as acid rain. This type of pollution is believed to cause serious damage to forests and lakes, particularly in the eastern part of the United States and Canada. In the years since, environmental policy has remained at the forefront of political discussion, especially as it relates to clean energy and climate change.