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What is the role of the Environmental Protection Agency?

During his first official week as the president of the United States, Donald Trump is moving quickly on his to-do list for his first 100 days in office, proving that he plans on sticking to the promises that he made as a candidate. Earlier this week, the Trump administration ordered a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency and has instructed staff to temporarily suspend all new contracts and grant awards.

In the following excerpt from Environmental Protection: What Everyone Needs to Know®, author Pamela Hill describes what exactly the Environmental Protection Agency is, as well as what role the agency plays in the United States.

What is the Environmental Protection Agency?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) is the main government agency charged with administering the federal environmental laws in the United States. The EPA’s job boils down to the difficult task of converting the broad mandates in laws passed by Congress into regulations and programs that can be understood by the public and by those who need to follow them, mostly industries. In addition, the EPA distributes large sums of money to states and other entities for specific purposes described in the environmental laws, such as money to run state environmental programs or to build sewage treatment plants. These funds make possible much of the environmental protection that the EPA oversees and the United States enjoys.

President Nixon created the EPA by an executive order, bringing together pieces of federal departments that previously had elements of environmental protection responsibility among their larger mandates. It is an independent regulatory agency and part of the executive branch of government. The president appoints its administrator with Senate approval. The EPA has a headquarters in Washington, DC in charge of policy and regulatory development, more than a dozen labs, and ten regional offices responsible for enforcement and for working with the states on program implementation. The EPA employs about 17,000 people, including scientists, engineers, policy analysts, lawyers, and economists.

The EPA’s independent status, notwithstanding its connection to the executive branch, is intended to protect its objectivity and the scientific basis of its programs and policies; both are highly valued within the agency. However, the agency is often buffeted by politics. An extreme example occurred during the Ronald Reagan administration when career staff clashed repeatedly with high- level political appointees. Similarly, during the George W. Bush administration the views of policymakers in the White House and political appointees within the agency especially concerning climate change created serious problems for some career staff.

Do most countries have environmental agencies similar to the EPA?

Yes. For example, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection performs functions similar to the EPA and has collaborated with the EPA for over three decades, as have many other govern­ments’ environmental agencies. The Umweltbundesamt has been Germany’s main environmental protection agency since 1974. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation is Russia’s EPA equivalent. Although many countries have high- level governmental agencies whose missions broadly concern environmental protection, they vary in focus, structure, and efficacy.

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Yosemite National Park by faaike. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

What values drive environmental policy?

Environmental protection has been embedded as a value in our global social fabric at least since the 1970s. The question becomes, then, what values to apply when solving specific environmental issues. Consider this oversimplified scenario: a proposed railway line would run through a wetland on its way from one major city to another, reducing the number of cars and pollution on the road and getting passengers to and from the cities much faster. Should the railway line be approved? Those who take a human- centered (anthropocentric) view value the human benefits from the railway line and would say yes. Those who value the nonhuman benefits of the wetland (such as wildlife habitat) and want to protect it would say no (unless saving it helps humans, as well it might). This is a fundamental values divide in environmental policymaking: human interests versus broader ecological interests. It raises the moral ques­tion of whether the human species can do whatever it wants to the environment to advance its own interests, or whether it is only one among many living things and has no right to destroy parts of the planet and deplete its resources for its own benefit at the expense of other species— whether, in fact, it has an obligation to protect these other living things.

At least in western moral philosophy, the human- centered per­spective tends to win out: Aristotle himself said that “nature has made all … things for the sake of humans.” The divine command to the first humans in the Bible is to “fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds in the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Moreover, the dominance of the economic lens in deciding environmental issues tends to promote human- centered environmental values. But there is significant counterbalance. Some biblical scholars, for example, point to stewardship concepts in the Bible. Many indigenous peoples such as American Indian tribes manifest a strong and abiding spiritual attachment to and respect for nature. The ecological values of the nineteenth cen­tury American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau linked nature directly with divinity, and are still influential, as is the environmental ethic of thinkers like Carson and Aldo Leopold, famous for his land ethic. In 2015, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reiterated remarks of his immediate predecessors and other Christian leaders that degradation of the environment is a sin. The relationship between human- centered interests and ecologi­cal ones finds its way into jurisprudence. Mineral King Valley in 1969 was a beautiful area and game refuge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains when The Disney Company proposed to build a resort there. Environmental groups tried to block it using a now famous legal argument: trees and other living creatures threatened with harm should have standing to sue in court, much like an orphaned child, with lawyers representing their interests. The legal theory did not win the day, but it received much attention in the US Supreme Court where the case ended up. The notion that “trees have stand­ing” appeared in the dissent penned by Justice William O. Douglas and joined by Justices Brennan and Blackmun, and remains a pro­vocative reminder of the fragility of a natural environment that has no voice, as well as of the stark conflict between economic and eco­logical values.

Featured image credit: “Earth, Globe, Birth” by geralt. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Dona Shera

    The role of the EPA is that of the enabler. By creating laws, setting limits, etc, on the pollution of our planet, the masses are quite satisfied to dream that there is an agency regulating polluters and if there were an accident or other sudden danger, the EPA surely would sound the alarm. Just look at the splendid job they did with Fukushima: the majority of U.S. citizens refer to the Fukushims Daiichi disaster in the past tense, while we have been hammered with fallout ever since day one!

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