About Environmental Law

Environmental law describes the network of regulations and laws that address the effects of human activity on the natural environment.

These laws are also referred to as environmental and natural resource laws and center on the idea of environmental pollution, change & displacement.

In addition to these issues, environmental law works to manage specific natural resources and environmental impact assessment at either a local, state or national level.

There are some key areas that environmental law works to regulate in order to lessen the impact on the environment. These include:

  • Air Quality
  • Water Quality
  • Waste Management
  • Contaminant Cleanup
  • Chemical Safety
  • Resource Sustainability
Why is Environmental Law Important?

Environmental law plays a huge part in protecting humans, animals, resources, and habitats. Without these laws, there would be no regulations concerning pollution, contamination, hunting, or even response to natural or other disasters such as oil spills at sea.

Environmental legislation and  laws work to protect land, air, water, and soil. Negligence of these laws results in various punishments like fines, community service, and in some cases, jail time. 

General Overview of Environmental Law
Federal Law:

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1970 along with the Environmental Quality Improvement Act and the National Environmental Education Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was also formed in 1970.

The main objective of these national laws is to protect the environment against public and private harms.

The goal of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is to monitor and analyze the environment, conduct research, and work closely with state and local governments to create efficient and positive pollution control policies. 

Major Federal Laws

Endangered Species Act (ESA): This Act protects endangered species in order to prevent their extinction. 

Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA):  This Act governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste.

Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA): Also known as the “Superfund,” this Act is aimed at cleaning up areas which are already polluted. This statute assigns broad liability to parties associated with the improper disposal of hazardous waste. The statute also provides funding for cleaning up the impacted areas.

Clean Air Act (CAA): The CAA is designed to protect air quality by regulating stationary and mobile sources of pollution.

Clean Water Act (CWA): The CWA protects water by preventing discharge of pollutants into navigable waters from point sources.

State Law

State laws reflect similar concerns which allow adversely affected property owners to seek a judicial remedy for environmental harms. Although laws on the state level vary from state to state, many of them mirror the federal laws.


Environmental rules are codified under Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations (40 CFR).

Comment on Proposed Rules

More about Regulations

Compliance & Enforcement

EPA helps regulated entities meet federal requirements, and holds entities legally accountable for violations.

About Compliance

EPA’s Enforcement Website 

Guidance & Petitions

EPA issues guidance documents to further clarify and assist in implementation of regulations.



More information at https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations

What Do Environmental Lawyers Do?

Environmental lawyers  specialise in environmental legislation and case law to advocate for the protection of communities and the environment. 

Whether it be by advising clients taking matters to court, working to reform the law, or developing legal strategies to achieve change, a public interest environmental lawyer is committed to the protection of the environment for the benefit of their clients and the broader community.

Different areas that an environmental lawyer may specialise in include:
  • Biodiversity, heritage and cultural protection
  • Water quality, air quality and pollution
  • Climate change
  • Renewable energy
  • Proper disposal of hazardous waste
  • Animal rights and species protection
  • Farming and agriculture issues
  • Preserving wetlands and protecting biodiversity
  • Better waste management systems
  • Sustainability and green strategies for the future
  • Green initiatives (for everyone from parks to cities to corporations)
  • Improved energy sources and clean technology
  • National green standards and new environmental legislation
  • Climate change laws and innovation
  • Native titles for land and environmental rights
  • Public land use and sea use
  • Resources and laws governing resource use (oil, natural gas, gold, etc.)

These issues can range from a small neighborhood problem to an issue on a national and even global scale.

Roles and Responsibilities

Environmental lawyers look at innovative ways to challenge government decision-making or government intervention points, find legal opportunities for clients and work on developing strategic solutions towards environmental issues. 

Some of the roles and responsibilities of an Environmental lawyer include:

  • Representing corporate, government and citizens in court
  • Providing legal advice to community members and environment groups
  • Writing submissions to government enquiries and providing oral evidence
  • Consulting and advising agencies, researchers, and scientists

As environmental issues facing communities grow exponentially, environmental lawyers are employed in a wide range of different industries, including:

  • Professional, scientific and technical services
  • Public administration and safety
  • Government sector
  • General planning and development
  • Waste management
  • Natural resources

Environmental lawyers tend to be advocates for the environment. They focus on protecting our natural environments and helping humans be safer in the natural world. You may think the only issues environmental lawyers cover would be things like preserving natural parks, but environmental lawyers could work with anything from rare animals to human-made buildings to the air we breathe.

What Are the Duties of an Environmental Lawyer?

Their main job is to assess, research, and strategize cases to represent their clients best.

Environmental laws are complex and can vary state to state, so environmental lawyers that know the local laws and focus on specific issues are currently  in high demand.

The five most important environmental laws they will know are:

Cases that environmental lawyers may undertake might involve shutting down oil drilling to protect natural land or convincing courts that the environmental impact of adding new buildings is acceptable. Overall, attorneys in this field fight for (or against) what humans want to do to animals, land, or water.

Is an Environmental Lawyer a Specialist?

For an attorney to be a specialist, they usually need additional licenses and credentials. But, in many ways, environmental law attorneys are “specialists” because of their focus on geological and biological systems.

It isn’t enough just to know laws. These lawyers also need additional knowledge in science and biology to understand the impact humans have on the planet.

They also need to understand:
  • Conservation and ecology
  • Economy & Impacts
  • Sustainability
  • Social responsibility
  • Theories of good stewardship

In just one case, they may handle important financial and sociological choices that impact whole communities of people and wildlife. In the next case, they might handle research and day-to-day filing of petitions. This role varies greatly based on the location, client, and case. 

When Should I Hire an Environmental Lawyer?

In a variety of challenging situations that have a large environmental, financial, or public relations impact, such as:

  • Building commercial or private real estate on protected land
  • Buying or selling contaminated real estate
  • Cost recovery or remedial action for landowners
  • Wetland or feedlot regulations
  • Criminal cases that involve forest fires, hazardous waste, or people becoming ill from their environment
  • Assessing damages to land and water from a criminal act or natural disaster
  • Coaching a corporation on switching to eco-friendly practices
  • Animal preservation at zoos or farm animal/farmland issues
  • Federal or state litigation for superfunds, also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA)

Environment Cases 

Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation v. EPA (2004)

Air authority to overrule state decisions about technology: Supreme Court of the United States. This case concerns the authority of EPA to enforce the provisions of the Clean Air Act’s (CAA or Act) Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program. Under that program, no major air pollutant emitting facility may be constructed unless the facility is equipped with “the best available control technology” (BACT). As added by §165, 91 Stat. 735, and amended, 42 U. S. C. §7475(a)(4). BACT, as defined in the CAA, means, for any major air pollutant emitting facility, “an emission limitation based on the maximum degree of [pollutant] reduction …Click here to see more.

Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1983)

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of any major federal action. As part of its generic rulemaking proceedings to evaluate the environmental effects of the nuclear fuel cycle for nuclear powerplants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that licensing boards should assume, for purposes of NEPA, that the permanent storage of certain nuclear wastes would have no significant environmental impact and thus should not affect the decision whether to license a particular nuclear powerplant… Click to see more

Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984)

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court. In the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977,  Congress enacted certain requirements applicable to States that had not achieved the national air quality standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pursuant to earlier legislation. The amended Clean Air Act required these “nonattainment” States to establish a permit program regulating “new or modified major stationary sources” of air pollution. Generally, a permit may not be issued for a new or modified major stationary source unless several stringent conditions are met… Click to see more

City of Philadelphia v. New Jersey (1978)

Mr. Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court. A New Jersey law prohibits the importation of most “solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State . . . .” In this case we are required to decide whether this statutory prohibition violates the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. The statutory provision in question is ch. 363 of 1973 N. J. Laws, which took effect in early 1974. In pertinent part, it provides: “No person shall bring into this State any solid or liquid waste which originated or was collected outside the territorial limits of the State, except garbage to be fed to swine in the State of New Jersey, until the commissioner [of the State Department of Environmental Protection] shall determine that such action can be permitted without endangering the public health, safety and welfare and has promulgated regulations permitting and regulating the treatment and disposal of such waste in this State.”… Click to see more

Cline v. American Aggregates Corporation


This court is today asked to re-examine the common law of Ohio as it is applied to ground water. The current standard recognizes no correlative rights with respect to ground water between adjoining landowners. This court last examined the issues encompassed in the present case in Frazier v. Brown (1861), 12 Ohio St. 294. In Frazier the “English rule” was applied to resolve any conflict involving percolating ground water… Click to see more

Department of Transportation v. Public Citizen (2004)

 is a case argued in the Supreme Court of the United States on 21 April 2004. The question the case presented relates to Presidential foreign affairs and foreign trade Actions exempt from environmental-review requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act… Click to see more

Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (2008) 

There are three questions of maritime law before us: whether a shipowner may be liable for punitive damages without acquiescence in the actions causing harm, whether punitive damages have been barred implicitly by federal statutory law making no provision for them, and whether the award of $2.5 billion, in this case, is greater than maritime law should allow in the circumstances. We are equally divided on the owner’s derivative liability and hold that the federal statutory law does not bar a punitive award on top of damages for economic loss, but that the award here should be limited to an amount equal to compensatory damages… Click to see more

Industrial Union Department v. American Petroleum Institute


The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Act), 84 Stat. 1590, 29 U. S. C. § 651 et seq., was enacted for the purpose of ensuring safe and healthful working conditions for every working man and woman in the Nation. This litigation concerns a standard promulgated by the Secretary of Labor to regulate occupational exposure to benzene, a substance which has been shown to cause cancer at high exposure levels. The principal question is whether such a showing is a sufficient basis for a standard that places the most stringent limitation on exposure to benzene that is technologically and economically possible… Click to see more

Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation

This is a lawsuit filed in a United States district court. The suit, based on the common law theory of nuisance, claims monetary damages from the energy industry for the destruction of Kivalina, Alaska by flooding caused by climate change… Click to see more

Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council


In 1986, petitioner David H. Lucas paid $975,000 for two residential lots on the Isle of Palms in Charleston County, South Carolina, on which he intended to build single- family homes. In 1988, however, the South Carolina Legislature enacted the Beachfront Management Act, S.C. Code § 48-39-250 et seq. (Su1990) (Act), which had the direct effect of barring petitioner from erecting any permanent habitable structures on his two parcels. See § 48-39- 290(A). A state trial court found that this prohibition rendered Lucas’s parcels “valueless.” Ato Pet. for Cert. 37. This case requires us to decide whether the Act’s dramatic effect on the economic value of Lucas’s lots accomplished a taking of private property under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments requiring the payment of “just compensation.”… Click to see more

County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund

The Clean Water Act forbids “any addition” of any pollutant from “any point source” to “navigable waters” without an appropriate permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Act defines “pollutant” broadly, defines a “point source” as “ ‘any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance from which pollutants are or may be discharged… Click to see more

Guam v. United States

Guam and the United States dispute liability for environmental hazards at the Ordot Dump, a site constructed on the island by the Navy in the 1940s and into which both parties allegedly have deposited waste over the decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Guam entered into a consent decree in 2004 that resolved litigation filed by the EPA alleging violations of the Clean Water Act… Click to see more

Florida v. Georgia

This case involves a dispute between Florida and Georgia concerning the proper apportionment of interstate waters. Florida brought an original action against Georgia alleging that its upstream neighbor consumes more than its fair share of water from interstate rivers in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. Florida claims that Georgia’s overconsumption of Basin waters caused low flows in the Apalachicola River which seriously harmed Florida’s oyster fisheries and river ecosystem… Click to see more

United States v. Atlantic Research Corporation

In this case, we must decide a question left open in Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc. (2004): whether the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) provides so-called potentially responsible parties with a cause of action to recover costs from other PRPs… Click to see more

Environmental Law Case Summaries

Environmental Law Stories

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