The Ten Most Important U.S. Environmental Laws

Some of the choices may surprise you.

In choosing the top environmental laws, I wanted to focus on those with the largest impacts on the environment, not just those that are most important to environmental lawyers or best known. My own priorities are public health, climate change, and preservation of biodiversity/ecosystems. I included all laws passed in the U.S., not just federal regulatory laws, and some of my selections may not be what you expected.  I’ve listed the laws in chronological order to avoid the need to rank them.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This law, signed on the first day of 1970, requires agencies to disclose the environmental effects of their actions. This marked the beginning of a decade of legislative environmental legislation. NEPA remains the workhorse of natural resource litigation today.

Clean Air Act.  If I were listing laws in order of importance, I would put the CAA on top. It is significant because if its huge public health benefits and because it has provided the basis for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.  In public health terms, what makes air pollution distinctive is the millions of people exposes to common pollutants such as particulates and smog. Other substances are more dangerous but the number of people exposed is much smaller.

Clean Water Act.  This law has done a good job at cleaning up municipal and industrial water pollution. Until gutted by the Supreme Court in 2022, it also provided important protection to the nation’s wetlands.

Endangered Species Act (ESA). In some ways the most robust environmental law because of its stringent requirements, which protect rare species and the ecosystems in which they live.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). As the largest conservation measures in the nation’s history, ANILCA reserves roughly 65 million acres of land in Alaska from development in national parks, wilderness areas, and other conservation areas.

Comprehensive Emergency Response and Cleanup Act (CERCLA). Provides for cleanup of hazardous waste sites. Also known as the Superfund law. The possibility of CERCLA liability also provides a powerful incentive for voluntary clean-up and for carefully disposing of materials in the first place.

Pavley Act. This California law imposes limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles, a breakthrough in U.S. climate law. California standards have been adopted by 17 other states plus the District of Columbia.

AB 32. Another California climate law, setting targets for greenhouse gas reductions and providing the basis for California cap and trade system as well as other regulations. Other states have enacted their own climate laws, sometimes building on the California experience.

Inflation Reduction Act. Provides approximately $370 billion dollars for clean energy and other climate-related programs.

Reader’s Choice. To tell the truth, I couldn’t decide on a tenth choice, so I decided to leave it up to you. Among of the possibilities:

  • A variety of laws that regulate toxic chemicals (including pesticides) and their disposal, such as RCRA, FIFRA, and TSCA.
  • Various laws protecting public lands like the Wilderness Act and the the Antiquities Act,
  • Energy laws like the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s provisions for renewables and energy efficiency, or CAFÉ mileage standards,
  • Clean Air Act Amendments: the major 1990 Amendments  (especially the acid rain provisions), and recent amendments that apply to super-greenhouse gases.

The choice probably depends on what areas of environmental law you prioritize. Let me know what you pick!





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Reader Comments

7 Replies to “The Ten Most Important U.S. Environmental Laws”

  1. as a full-time professor, you have the luxury of ignoring the laws that are most important to the practice of law. but outside your ivy tower suite, CERCLA was the most transformative law ever passed. Before CERCLA, environmental lawyers werre basically limited to “tree huggers” and “animal lovers”. CERCLA essentially created environmental law for the private sector and without it, you might not have a full-time teachning job.

    You should also add RCRA since it basically put an end to improper disposal of hazardous wastes.

    why would you feel need to separate CAA from the 1990 CAA amendments? is the same law with just amendments. you can now eliminate one less law from your list for #10

    1. Thanks, I was hoping to stir debate. I included the 1990 Act separately because the amendments were so extensive and made major changes such as the sulfur dioxide trading program to deal with acid rain. I agree that CERCLA and RCRA are important, but on a public policy scale I would rank them below the laws that I listed. Obviously a judgment call.

  2. The Antiquities Act, because of the power it gives presidents to protect large swaths of federal lands through executive action. Since Theodore Roosevelt set a precedent by taking full advantage of his authority under the law to protect the Grand Canyon and other special places, his successors have used it to protect millions of acres of federal lands.

  3. I believe RCRA should be #10 because it established the “cradle to grave” mantra of dealing with hazardous waste.

  4. Not my practice area, but I’m going to make a plug for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Frankly, many environmental lawyers confuse it with the IRA or otherwise seem to have forgetten about. I tried to organize a panel on the IVJA and the IRA and couldn’t find a single lawyer willing (or most likely, able) to coherently discuss the environmental provisions of both bills and how they impact stakeholders such as developers, farmers, manufacturers, EJ groups even though both bills have 100’s of provisions that impact all of these groups. Leads to wonder if our profession’s obsession with fringe issues has allowed us to wander away from our core mission, which is serving actual clients and solving real problems, in exchange for those clients providing us with our livelihoods.

  5. You did not include the National Historic Preservation Act, 1966 that protects our national, state and local cultural resources including historic properties, archaeological sites, and traditional cultural places. This law has protected thousands of sites that if not enacted, we would not have today, including Mount Vernon that spurred the development and passage of this law. In the years since its passage, resources representing all facets of our collective history have been protected. I think this should be on the list too!

  6. Interestingly, none of the laws you cited would have as much teeth without the foundation of the Civil Rights Act – just like many people forget that MLK, the day before he was murdered, was in Memphis to protest environmental racism, they also forget about the wide ranging environmental justice implications of the CRA and how it is ABSOLUTELY an “environmental law.” We can’t improve the environment without addressing and dismantling white “supremacy” and other forms of discrimination.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more