Richard N. L. Andrews
Between 1964 and 2017, the United States adopted the concept of environmental policy as a new focus for a broad range of previously disparate policy issues affecting human interactions with the natural environment. These policies ranged from environmental health, pollution, and toxic exposure to management of ecosystems, resources, and use of the public lands, environmental aspects of urbanization, agricultural practices, and energy use, and negotiation of international agreements to address global environmental problems. In doing so, it nationalized many responsibilities that had previously been considered primarily state or local matters. It changed the United States’ approach to federalism by authorizing new powers for the federal government to set national minimum environmental standards and regulatory frameworks with the states mandated to participate in their implementation and compliance. Finally, it explicitly formalized administrative procedures for federal environmental decision-making with stricter requirements for scientific and economic justification rather than merely administrative discretion. In addition, it greatly increased public access to information and opportunities for input, as well as for judicial review, thus allowing citizen advocates for environmental protection and appreciative uses equal legitimacy with commodity producers to voice their preferences for use of public environmental resources.
These policies initially reflected widespread public demand and broad bipartisan support. Over several decades, however, they became flashpoints, first, between business interests and environmental advocacy groups and, subsequently, between increasingly ideological and partisan agendas concerning the role of the federal government. Beginning in the 1980s, the long-standing Progressive ideal of the “public interest” was increasingly supplanted by a narrative of “government overreach,” and the 1990s witnessed campaigns to delegitimize the underlying evidence justifying environmental policies by labeling it “junk science” or a “hoax.”
From the 1980s forward, the stated priorities of environmental policy vacillated repeatedly between presidential administrations and Congresses supporting continuation and expansion of environmental protection and preservation policies versus those seeking to weaken or even reverse protections in favor of private-property rights and more damaging uses of resources. Yet despite these apparent shifts, the basic environmental laws and policies enacted during the 1970s remained largely in place: political gridlock, in effect, maintained the status quo, with the addition of a very few innovations such as “cap and trade” policies. One reason was that environmental policies retained considerable latent public support: in electoral campaigns, they were often overshadowed by economic and other issues, but they still aroused widespread support in their defense when threatened. Another reason was that decisions by the courts also continued to reaffirm many existing policies and to reject attempts to dismantle them.
With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, along with conservative majorities in both houses of Congress, US environmental policy came under the most hostile and wide-ranging attack since its origins. More than almost any other issue, the incoming president targeted environmental policy for rhetorical attacks and budget cuts, and sought to eradicate the executive policies of his predecessor, weaken or rescind protective regulations, and undermine the regulatory and even the scientific capacity of the federal environmental agencies. In the early 21st century, it is as yet unclear how much of his agenda will actually be accomplished, or whether, as in past attempts, much of it will ultimately be blocked by Congress, the courts, public backlash, and business and state government interests seeking stable policy expectations rather than disruptive deregulation.
Nuclear power in the United States has had an uneven history and faces an uncertain future. Promising in the 1950s electricity “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power has failed to come close to that goal, although it has carved out approximately a 20 percent share of American electrical output. Two decades after World War II, General Electric and Westinghouse offered electric utilities completed “turnkey” plants at a fixed cost, hoping these “loss leaders” would create a demand for further projects. During the 1970s the industry boomed, but it also brought forth a large-scale protest movement. Since then, partly because of that movement and because of the drama of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power has plateaued, with only one reactor completed since 1995.
Several factors account for the failed promise of nuclear energy. Civilian power has never fully shaken its military ancestry or its connotations of weaponry and warfare. American reactor designs borrowed from nuclear submarines. Concerns about weapons proliferation stymied industry hopes for breeder reactors that would produce plutonium as a byproduct. Federal regulatory agencies dealing with civilian nuclear energy also have military roles. Those connections have provided some advantages to the industry, but they have also generated fears. Not surprisingly, the “anti-nukes” movement of the 1970s and 1980s was closely bound to movements for peace and disarmament.
The industry’s disappointments must also be understood in a wider energy context. Nuclear grew rapidly in the late 1960s and 1970s as domestic petroleum output shrank and environmental objections to coal came to the fore. At the same time, however, slowing economic growth and an emphasis on energy efficiency reduced demand for new power output. In the 21st century, new reactor designs and the perils of fossil-fuel-caused global warming have once again raised hopes for nuclear, but natural gas and renewables now compete favorably against new nuclear projects.
Economic factors have been the main reason that nuclear has stalled in the last forty years. Highly capital intensive, nuclear projects have all too often taken too long to build and cost far more than initially forecast. The lack of standard plant designs, the need for expensive safety and security measures, and the inherent complexity of nuclear technology have all contributed to nuclear power’s inability to make its case on cost persuasively. Nevertheless, nuclear power may survive and even thrive if the nation commits to curtailing fossil fuel use or if, as the Trump administration proposes, it opts for subsidies to keep reactors operating.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.