Environmental law is the collection of laws, regulations, agreements and common law that governs how humans interact with their environment. The purpose of environmental law is to protect the environment and create rules for how people can use natural resources. Environmental laws not only aim to protect the environment from harm, but they also determine who can use natural resources and on what terms. Laws may regulate pollution, the use of natural resources, forest protection, mineral harvesting and animal and fish populations.
Early environmental laws
Environmental laws are relatively new in American history. Lawmakers began to pass environmental laws in the twentieth century. The environmental movement began to pick up pace in the 1960s with the majority of environmental laws and regulations being created since that time.
The first environmental laws focused on nuisance. When one person’s use of their property interferes with another person’s use of their own property, courts can step in to stop the nuisance. Nuisance laws largely developed through common law decisions in the courts. The laws protect a property owner from having another person or corporation infringe on their right to enjoy their own property. Early environmental laws didn’t focus on protecting the environment as a whole. They also didn’t give standing for a person to sue a polluter if they weren’t personally harmed by the other person’s actions.
What do environmental laws regulate?
Environmental laws cover a wide range of topics including the following:
- Air Quality – Air quality laws protect the air from pollution and may include measures to protect the air from things like ozone depletion.
- Water Quality – Environmental laws may protect water from pollution. They may also determine who can use water and how to handle potential problems like treating waste water and managing surface run off.
- Waste Management – Municipal waste, hazardous substances and nuclear waste all fall in the category of waste management.
- Contaminant Cleanup – Not all environmental law focuses on preventing pollution. Contaminant cleanup deals with addressing pollution after it happens. Laws may include protocols for cleanup as well as civil and criminal punishment for polluters.
- Chemical Safety – Chemical safety regulations manage things like pesticide use and chemicals in products like plastic bottles.
- Hunting and fishing – Environmental laws may regulate and protect wildlife populations. Lawmakers determine who can hunt and fish and how these activities are regulated.
Major environmental legislation
The first federal environmental law is the River and Harbors Act of 1889. The Clean Water Actrevised much of the Harbors Act. The Act made it a crime to introduce waste into navigable waters without a permit. The law also made it a misdemeanor to alter a harbor or waterfront or otherwise alter a waterway by filling it or excavating it.
Other significant pieces of federal environmental legislation include:
- Clean Air Act
- Clean Water Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
- Endangered Species Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
As environmental laws progressed, lawmakers addressed the issue of standing. Individuals no longer need to be personally aggrieved in order to bring a claim to stop environmental contamination. Changes in laws have led to landmark legal actions like the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission which stopped a power plant from operating. The court ruled that a group of citizens have standing in court to challenge a development because of environmental concerns.
Sources of environmental law and the Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental laws come from a number of places. Most federal regulations come from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations contains many environmental regulations created by the EPA. Decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court interpret EPA regulations broadly. One famous case affirming the EPA’s wide powers is Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee v. U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The EPA uses its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to enforce its regulations.
Other federal organizations that regulate the environment include:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Park Service
- U.S. Forest Service
- Bureau of Land Management
Environmental law is administrative law
A great deal of environmental law enforcement takes place through administrative law. The EPA might investigate a violation and bring an administrative action to their own officials. Lawyers represent the EPA at these hearings, and they represent the people and corporations who are accused of violating rules. Those who are found responsible for violating the rules may appeal the decision to the courts. Most violations are a civil offense, but there are also criminal penalties for serious offenders.
Environmental regulation is a topic of international discussion and debate. International governments grapple with how to effectively regulate pollution and use of natural resources on an international scale. As environmental regulations can be a hot-button topic among local, state and national governments, environmental regulations and the use of natural resources are controversial issues between governments.
One of the first international summits on environmental issues was the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The 1992 United Nations Earth Summit followed. The Summit produced the Rio Declaration. In the Rio Declaration, signatory states said that humans should develop the earth in a way that meets developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.
State-level environmental regulations
Even though there are federal laws and international agreements regarding environmental law, there are also a great deal of state and local laws regarding the environment. Each state has an agency to manage and regulate natural resources in the state. They set regulations on how people can hunt and fish. Most states also have an agency for regulating environmental quality.
A practice in controversy
Environmental laws are controversial. Lawmakers must debate the necessity, fairness and cost-effectiveness of environmental regulations. It’s often difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulations, because it can be difficult to calculate the cost of a regulation. Even when you can calculate the cost of a regulation, people may have a great deal of disagreement about the benefits of regulation.
Practicing environmental law requires a certain amount of diplomacy. You might have to speak to a local, municipal government about the benefits or dangers of a regulation. You may be an international diplomat discussing the same issues with a foreign government. If you’re representing a corporation, you need to be able to work effectively with government agents if your corporation is accused of wrongdoing. For environmental lawyers, the ability to work with people is a critical legal skill.
Who practices environmental law?
Environmental lawyers work in public and private practice. They gravitate to large law firms, and they work as in-house counsel, but they may also represent individuals in small firm or solo practice. The EPA also needs lawyers to serve as administrative judges that hear allegations of rule violations.
Corporations rely on environmental lawyers to help them understand and comply with regulations. They turn to their own in-house lawyers for guidance. Some corporations prefer to contract with independent counsel. Even an attorney in private practice may have a single client for their entire career as an environmental compliance attorney.
There may be a significant amount of litigation involved with a practice in environmental law. Lawyers must represent their clients in administrative hearings and formal court. They must negotiate resolutions with EPA attorneys. To succeed in environmental law, a lawyer must be an effective negotiator. Speaking skills and trial advocacy skills are also a must for representing clients at hearings, depositions and in front of political bodies.
Environmental lawyers work throughout the United States and the world. Working for an international company may mean international travel or a permanent international assignment. Corporations must comply with environmental issues throughout the United States, so they rely on lawyers throughout the country. In addition, individuals who rely on lawyers to bring cases to protect them from environmental pollution and nuisance need lawyers to live and work throughout the country. On a local level, lawyers may represent individuals when they face criminal and civil allegations of hunting and fishing violations.
Why Become an Environmental Lawyer?
Environmental law is important for both individuals and corporations. For lawyers who represent corporations, they provide a critical service that enables the corporation to conduct business in a lawful way. Lawyers who work for the EPA protect the public interest. In addition, lawyers help individuals protect their personal peace and safety when they’re personally aggrieved by rule breakers. Lawyers in the field have the opportunity to influence local, state, national and international policies. For lawyers who have personal goals to influence environmental policies, the area of law can provide that opportunity.
When the law and the environment intersect
Environmental lawyers grapple with whether and how lawmakers should regulate the environment. When those decisions are made, lawyers help their clients implement regulations in the best ways possible. Lawyers for government agencies and for individuals provide a critical public service in creating, enforcing and challenging environmental laws and regulations throughout the United States.