Here is a rundown of a dozen pivotal environmental-policy laws enacted since President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Lawmakers have left some of these statutes relatively untouched for years. Others—namely the Clean Air Act—are now under attack like never before.
The Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act
Passed in 1970 and significantly amended in 1990, the Clean Air Act set the nation’s first-ever goals and standards for air quality to protect human health. Most current lawmakers view the Clean Air Act through the prism of President Obama’s politically divisive climate-change rules.
Also passed in 1970, the National Environmental Protection Act was one of the first cornerstones of modern U.S. environmental policy. It requires federal agencies to, as environmentalists say, “look before you leap.” Under the act, the government must assess the environmental effects of all the major activities it funds before approving them.
The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act
These two laws taken together give government the authority to ensure that the nation’s waterways are clean and its drinking-water supplies are safe. Environmental experts hope and predict that lawmakers will reintroduce legislation in this Congress to amend the Clean Water Act to more effectively address interstate water pollution and other issues.
The Endangered Species Act
Environmental experts say that the government should invoke the 1973 Endangered Species Act only as a “safety net” if other laws fail to protect endangered animals. House Republicans in this Congress have sought to overturn the entire law or parts of it; some, for example, want to “delist” gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from the law’s protections.
The photo above shows an endangered sea turtle after it washed ashore, dead, on April 16 in Pass Christian, Miss.
Congress approved the country’s first-ever corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicles in 1975 in response to OPEC’s embargo. In 2010, Obama significantly raised fuel-economy standards after 2016 and issued the first-ever carbon-emissions standards for vehicles.
The National Forest Management Act
Congress passed this law in 1976 to manage the government’s woodlands, directing the U.S. Forest Service to develop rules governing timber companies’ cutting practices and mandating prompt reforestation of harvested areas. The law has been the focal point of legal fights since at least the presidency of George W. Bush, and the political landscape is no different on Obama’s watch.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act
This 1976 law governs the way the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management administers public lands. To date, the bureau has protected just 1 percent of Western public land as wilderness and has leased 42 percent of it to oil and gas companies. The agency is eyeing parts of the remaining 57 percent of the land, which is now categorized as “mixed use.” The map above shows Colorado public lands protected by the bureau.
The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
Passed in 1977, this law is the government’s primary authority to regulate the environmental impacts of surface and mountaintop-removal mining. The photo above shows heavy machinery at work at a coal mine on top of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. The mountaintop has been demolished in the process of extracting coal.
The Toxic Substances Control Act and Superfund
Taken together, these two laws have been instrumental in ensuring that businesses properly manage toxic chemicals—and clean up after themselves if their work contaminates a site with toxic waste. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., could reintroduce legislation in this Congress to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act for the first time in 35 years, requiring manufacturers to provide information about the chemicals contained in consumer products.
The photo above shows a man looking out over the polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009. One of the nation's most extensively contaminated bodies of water, the canal was added to the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List in 2010.
The Oil Pollution Act
Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act in 1990, a year and a half after the Exxon Valdez spill. It streamlined the federal government’s response to oil disasters, increased oil companies’ liability, and imposed other measures to guard against another tanker spill. In the aftermath of the BP oil spill last year, which far eclipsed the Exxon tanker disaster as the worst in U.S. waters, experts say that Congress needs to update the statute. The photo above shows a shovel picking up oily globs that washed ashore from the BP spill in Waveland, Miss., in July 2010.
Photos by Getty Images, Graphic courtesy of the Interior Department contributed to this article.