National Environmental Policy Act of 1969: A Historical Controversy from Issues & Controversies in History

National Environmental Policy Act of 1969: A Historical Controversy from Issues & Controversies in History

Earth Day Spotlight from Issues & Controversies in History:
NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT OF 1969: Does NEPA Create New and Enforceable Duties on the Government to Treat the Environment Differently?

Did NEPA create new and enforceable obligations on the federal government to take environment values seriously, or was NEPA simply a general statement of policy goals? Be sure to check out Issues & Controversies in History’s complete and unbiased coverage of this divisive issue. Learn more about the issue and check out a sample of the pro/con arguments on both sides below.

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The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) was an important development in the evolution of the nation’s approach to the environment. The law declared an ambitious set of environmental goals and values for the nation. It charged federal agencies with the task of evaluating and publicizing the environmental impacts of future actions significantly affecting the environment, and it created a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to help implement the law and oversee the nation’s environmental progress. When it was first passed, however, the law’s newness and vague language created uncertainty as to how it should be implemented. In 1971, a group of environmental organizations opposing the construction of a nuclear power plant on the shore of Chesapeake Bay decided to test NEPA’s potential by suing the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for not complying with NEPA. The lawsuit forced the court to address a fundamental question about the law: Did NEPA create new and enforceable duties on the government with respect to the environment? If so, what were these duties? The court’s ruling would not only define the interpretation of NEPA, it would radically change the landscape of environmental politics.

Argument that NEPA created new and enforceable obligations on the federal government to change its behavior and take environmental values seriously:

The framers of NEPA, and the environmental group suing the AEC, argued that the law was intended to force the federal government to take environmental impacts more seriously by incorporating environmental considerations and perspectives into the thinking and decision making of every federal activity. They argued that NEPA effectively expanded the responsibilities of all federal agencies to examine, document, and consider the full range of environmental impacts of their actions and to faithfully and meaningfully incorporate these considerations into their decision-making processes.

Argument that NEPA was a general statement of policy goals and did not create new or specific obligations:

The AEC, like many other federal agencies, argued that NEPA was a flexible statement of environmental goals that left the specifics of implementation to the discretion of the agencies themselves. They argued that NEPA did not change their core missions, nor was it their responsibility to evaluate environmental impacts that were outside of their normal expertise. They argued that independent environmental analyses were unnecessary for issues that were already addressed by existing pollution control laws. Finally, the AEC argued that issues such as energy development were too important to be delayed by environmental reviews.

Issues & Controversies in History links this pro/con article to rich related resources that enhance the debate. Students and researchers can delve into primary sources that provide context, a topic-specific timeline, a bibliography, and a thought-provoking “What if…” section that explores what might have happened had people made different choices. Plus, discussion questions are provided to inspire critical thinking and analysis.

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