Like many developed economies, the United States has made great strides over the past half century enacting laws to protect the environment, promote social wellbeing and oversee corporate governance.
Key steps were the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, both in 1970.
NEPA’s preamble states that national policy is “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
Indeed, with the passing of NEPA, federal agencies were required to report on environmental assessments and environmental impact statements regarding any action they took.
“By its very nature, NEPA emphasizes the importance of sustainability,” wrote the Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a report examining the EPA’s sustainability practices.
More than 100 nations around the world have used NEPA as a model to craft their own environmental policies.
The EPA is the principal federal body responsible for administering most of the country’s cornerstone environmental statutes, including the 1963 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
The agency consists of a number of offices that focus on more niche topics, such as the Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds.
The agency also has 10 administrative regions, each covering anywhere from four states and territories to eight, with regional offices responsible for implementing the agency’s programs, excluding programs delegated on the state level.
Other federal entities with environmental jurisdiction include:
Department of Interior – administers the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act
Department of Transportation and Department of Energy – responsible for federal energy efficiency, operation and cleanup at DoE sites and for meeting conservation requirements
Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program – administers the issuance of permits under section 404 of the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Act amendments, which controls development in wetlands, in coordination with the EPA
Organizations whose operations may potentially impact the environment must obtain a permit to assure site-specific compliance with environmental performance standards. These are authorized under local, state and federal law.
According to the Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. conservation law is in line with many widely adopted sustainable development principles, but there is no established strategy or benchmarks for progress as there is in the European Union, for example.
The committee goes on to point out that sustainable development “is a normal conceptual framework that is broader than the sum of U.S. environmental and conservation laws.” U.S. law does not fully address tenets of sustainable development such as defining and controlling production and consumption patterns, encouraging sustainable communities, biodiversity, clean energy, environmentally sustainable economic development and climate change.
After leading the way with its environmental protection laws in the 20th century, the U.S. now lags behind the rest of the world, likely due to the nature of the country’s politics in which policies can be rescinded or dodged altogether.
The EPA’s priorities, jurisdiction and policies are usually in flux. While advocates of the EPA point to the environmental benefits of the agencies regulations, other groups believe the agency is overbearing and hinders business owners. In 2017, one bill presented in the U.S. House of Representatives even went so far as to abolish the EPA by 2018. “The American people are drowning in rules and regulation promulgated by unelected bureaucrats. And the Environmental Protection Agency has become an extraordinary offender,” said representative Matt Gaetz, who sponsored the bill.
One such example of these dueling ideologies put into practice would be the withdrawal by former President Donald Trump and the rejoining of current President Joe Biden of the Paris Agreement.
The Trump administration also rolled back more than 100 environmental rules – some of which were still in progress by the time of his departure – the bulk of which were carried out by the EPA, according to a New York Times analysis. Almost one-third of those rules dealt with air pollution and emissions, including an attempt to repeal California’s emissions standards, which are more stringent than the federal standards.
The U.S. Supreme Court, even more recently, said it would examine a quartet of cases regarding the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
In a 2008 survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, more than half of the 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded said they had experienced political interference in their work.
The U.S. is the only member of the OECD and G-20 to not report its progress in the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and the country ranks 32 out of 165 in SDG progress by the Sustainable Development Report – with only five of the top 31 being outside Europe.
The EPA runs a number of voluntary sustainability programs. The SmartWay Transportation Partnership is a “market-based public-private partnership, created and administered by EPA to help industry move goods in cleaner, more efficient ways,” according to the EPA’s website.
To date, almost 3,000 companies and associations participate in the program. In 2004, SmartWay participants eliminated 23.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, 478,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and saved 55 million barrels of fuel, according to the agency.
“More efficient freight transportation can help improve air quality and mitigate climate change by cutting emissions. It also reduces costs, demonstrating the ‘people, profit and planet’ principles which helps a company’s bottom line and protects the health and well-being of employees, suppliers, and the communities they serve,” the EPA told Sustainability InSite via email.