The Role of the U.S. Government in Environmental Protection

A Look at the United States Government and Environmental Protection Policy

People hugging tree trunk in park
People hugging tree trunk in park. Getty Images/Denise Kwong/EyeEm

The regulation of practices that affect the environment has been a relatively recent development in the United States, but it is a good 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 political arena but 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 larger cities. Pollution represented what economists call an externality, or 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 has a moral obligation to protect the earth's fragile ecosystems, even if doing so required that some economic growth be sacrificed. In response, a slew of laws were enacted to control pollution, including some of the more famous and influential like 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 and ratification by Congress committee hearings. The establishment of the EPA brought several federal programs charged with protecting the environment together into a single government agency. It was founded with the objective of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. 

The Environmental Protection Agency Today

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency 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 the new standards. The EPA also has the authority to coordinate and support research and anti-pollution efforts of state and local governments, private and public groups, and educational institutions. Furthermore, regional EPA offices develop, propose, and implement approved regional programs for comprehensive environmental protection activities. While today the EPA delegates some responsibilities like monitoring and enforcement to U.S. state governments, it retains the authority to enforce policy through fines, sanctions, and other measures granted by the federal government.

Impact of the EPA and New Environmental Policies

Data collected since the agency began its work in the 1970s shows significant improvements in environmental quality. In fact, there has been a nationwide decline of virtually all air pollutants. However, in 1990 many Americans believed that still greater efforts to combat air pollution were needed and that sentiment appears to still hold today. In response, congress passed important amendments to the Clean Air Act that were signed into law by President George H. W. Bush during his presidency (1989-1993). Among other things, 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. Today, environmental protection policy remains at the forefront of political discussion and at the top of the current administration's agenda particularly as it relates to clean energy and climate change.