How the U.S. Government Protects the Environment

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  • 0:01 Environmental Policy Defined
  • 0:58 The Players
  • 3:44 Policy Approaches
  • 6:27 Fragmented Policy
  • 7:28 Important Laws and Regulations
  • 10:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

One of the most controversial areas of government policy today is environmental policy. In this lesson, you'll learn how U.S. government environmental policy is made and you'll be provided an overview of some major legislative acts.

Environmental Policy Defined

Evan works for the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., as a policy analyst. Part of his job is to review current environmental policies of the United States government. Evan is also responsible for making recommendations for revision of current policies as well as the development and implementation of new ones.

Environmental policies consist of a government's course of action regarding regulating the manner in which we interact with the environment. Areas of environmental policy include pollution, land use, protection of wildlife, energy, consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the production and disposal of waste.

The Players

When analyzing whether an environmental policy should be revised or new policies developed, policy analysts, like Evan, must consider the key players in the development of environmental policy.

The president of the United States plays a pivotal role in setting the policy agenda through his or her vision of the role the government should play in regulating activities affecting the environment. Just as importantly, since the regulators serve under the executive branch, the president can control, to a significant degree, how regulators go about recommending policy and enforcing current policy.

Congress is responsible for passing environmental legislation. Environmental policy must be implemented through policies and activities that are authorized by statute.

Courts play an important role. The United States Constitution limits government action, and suits can be brought challenging the constitutionality of environmental laws and regulations. Moreover, courts may be required to interpret the scope and meaning of legislation enacted by Congress to resolve a dispute.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulators play a very important role. These executive agencies take the environmental statutes passed by Congress and implement them through the formulation of regulations, which the agency then enforces. For example, certain air pollution standards may be set, and the EPA will engage in routine and surprise inspections to ensure that companies that produce air pollution are abiding by the regulations. If not, statutorily authorized enforcement proceedings will be commenced against violators. There may also be statutory authorized penalties imposed.

Interest groups play a very important role in the formulation and implementation of U.S. environmental policy. Interest groups include advocates for stronger environmental policies, such as the Sierra Club, and advocates for weaker policies, such as industry trade groups. These interest groups actively lobby Congress to try to convince it to adopt their view of what is appropriate environmental policy.

Policy Approaches

Evan and government policymakers can take some different approaches when designing environmental policy.

One approach is the use of command and control regulations. This was the approach utilized by the U.S. government in the 1970s. Command and control regulations impose mandatory requirements and standards upon parties in their activities relating to the environment. For example, regulations that outline how toxic waste must be stored or the type and level of pollutants that can be reintroduced into a public water system are command and control regulations.

Evan and policymakers can also recommend the use of incentive regulations, which has started to play a significant role in U.S. environmental law and regulations starting in the 1990s. Incentive regulations are market-oriented and seek to provide incentives to encourage certain behavior through rewards and discourage other behavior through making the conduct costly. For example, some states require consumers to pay a recycling deposit on each can of soda, bottle of alcohol, or other recyclable container. If the consumer fails to recycle the container, the consumer pays more for the product. On the other hand, if the consumer returns the containers to a recycling center, then the consumer is refunded the deposit and pays less per container of product by engaging in the environmentally-friendly practice of recycling.

Incentive regulations are not without some critics. An example of an approach criticized by some is the issuance of marketable pollution credits. The credit permits its holder to pollute a certain amount. Since the credits are marketable, some companies are able to reduce their pollution, leaving a surplus of credits that they can sell to other companies for money. Some argue that credits are tantamount to a license to pollute. Additionally, the practice of trading credits may also create high concentrations of pollution in areas where industries that pollute buy credits to do so.

Fragmented Policy

When Evan's friends ask him to describe U.S. environmental policy, Evan tells them it's fragmented. What this means is that the United States government does not have one overarching uniform policy towards regulating the environment. Instead, U.S. environmental policy is developed in response to conflicting interests, public opinion, economics, and scientific debate and controversy.

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