A Look at the Past, Present and Future of Environmental Law
The world we live in today is completely different than the one we lived in 50 years ago. From social norms to a more dynamic economy, we have made huge strides. Perhaps one of the largest shifts has been environmental quality. Over the course of 50 years, a lot has happened and the environmental landscape in the U.S. has transformed in ways never seen before in history. April 22nd marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and although we are in the midst of a global pandemic, EarthX took innovative measures to continue on.
EarthX, the world’s largest environmental expo and conference, takes place every year in Dallas, Texas during Earth Day week. Being a young environmentalist and non-profit leader myself, I have attended the expo every year since 2017, and thanks to telecommunications, I was able to do the same this year. EarthX went virtual this year, holding panels and speaking events online. A notable portion of the conference was the EarthX Law event.
The event focused on environmental law and the regulations/policies that make up our environmental standards here in the U.S. Among the speakers were Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Ken McQueen from the EPA, Jeff Civins from Haynes and Boone, LLP, Dr. Dan Esty from the Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School, and Seth Siegel, the author of Troubled Water.
Ken McQueen opened up the event, discussing how water quality has improved in the U.S. over the last 50 years. McQueen is the Region 6 Administrator of the EPA, managing EPA functions in TX, OK, AR, LA, and NM. According to EPA data, the leaps in water quality have been significant. Over 40% of the nation’s water failed to meet basic health needs, riddled with toxins and health hazards. Since 1970, the amount of water supply that meets EPA health standards jumped from 60% to 92%.
A major area of improvement, in particular, has been lead contamination. Lead poses huge health risks particularly to developing children. Over the last 40-50 years, the EPA has measured median lead concentration in the blood of children ages 1-5. Since 1976, the lead concentration has dropped a staggering 95%. Overall, McQueen argues that water quality has improved and is continuing to improve in the U.S.
Next to speak was Seth Siegel. Drawing contrast with McQueen, Siegel believes not enough is being done to make our water safe. He is the Founder of Earth and Water Law Groupand author of the book “Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink, which was written following extensive research on water quality and standards in the U.S. His argument is multipronged, the first prong being that our water simply is contaminated with toxins and watchdogs aren’t doing their jobs. The next prong explains why. Siegel argues that not enough contaminants are monitored by the EPA. Of the thousands of water contaminants, only 70 are monitored and regulated by the EPA.
To contrast both speakers, Dan Esty argues for new approaches and reaching across the aisle to develop lasting solutions rather than party line ones that crumble upon new leadership. He identifies the environmental challenges we face, including climate change, air quality, and water quality, and that we are ignoring certain issues.
He also argues that our environmental policy framework is built for a world that is no longer and they must be modernized. For example, 21st Century regulations shouldn’t be centralized in Washington but rather divided between community stakeholders and levels of government.
Esty also argues utilizing the power of property rights is crucial. By better-defining property rights and allowing people to protect their own environmental assets, we can protect the environment through natural market and law functions.
The final point he brings up is the importance of innovation. We need to ensure that the technologies that get us to lower emissions and the companies that will develop these technologies are taken into account as part of the solution.
We are living in a cleaner world today than we did in 1970. We have cleaner water, air, and more sustainable ways of life. That being said, we are facing challenges today that will require more than additional regulations. In order to make significant improvements, we must consult various societal stakeholders and make a wide range of people part of the environmental solution. We need to take our regulatory structure into the 21st Century and enact sweeping reforms. We must harness the power of property rights to reinforce environmental quality and reduce societal costs. We must take an innovation-based approach to tackle the challenges we are faced with.
By doing all of this, I am confident that Earth Day 2070 will be a day of celebration and that future generations will be here to enjoy it.
Written by Nicholas Lindquist