This timeline provides milestones for events and policy decisions regarding energy and the environment.
In the new atomic age launched by the bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the Atomic Energy Act is passed. The law provides for the monitoring of all nuclear materials and facilities, in both their commercial and military capacities.
The first U.S. commercial nuclear reactor begins operations in Shippingport, Pa., signaling the start of a new environmental challenge: disposal of radioactive waste.
The Clean Air Act of 1963 is the first federal law to address air pollution control. It creates a national program and authorizes research into techniques for controlling air pollution. Its predecessor, the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, funded research into air pollution. In subsequent years, several laws and amendments will broaden federal authority and set air quality standards.
The first Earth Day is celebrated by millions of Americans on April 22. The annual event raises awareness about the environment and encourages public commitment and community activism.
President Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate environmental programs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to focus on air and sea research.
Like the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act establishes standards for water quality in the United States and goals for future water purity. The law will be amended several times in the late 1980s and in 1990 to deal with new environmental hazards such as toxic pollutants and oil spills.
In retaliation for Western support of Israel during the Arab-Israeli war, the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), supplier of 70 percent of the world’s oil supply, cuts off its oil exports to many nations, including the United States. The embargo causes prices of oil and other petroleum products to skyrocket, and the United States is faced with a severe energy shortage. As one conservation measure, a nationwide 55-m.p.h. speed limit is established (but later repealed in 1995).
The embargo, which ends a year later, encourages environmental awareness and energy conservation throughout the world, and new technologies are explored, including solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear power.
In 1966, the plight of the whooping crane led Congress to pass the Endangered Species Preservation Act. Rewritten in 1973, the law distinguishes threatened from endangered species, includes plants and invertebrates, authorizes unlimited funds for protection, and makes it illegal to kill, harm, or “take” a listed species. The law draws controversy when environmental and commercial interests clash over protection of various species, such as the northern spotted owl.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act recognizes that the protection of federal lands in their natural state is a national interest, and provides for public involvement in federal land management.
President Jimmy Carter signs the Department of Energy Organization Act, creating the Department of Energy and providing a framework for a national energy plan by coordinating and administering the energy functions of the federal government. Energy efficiency and renewable energy programs begin to receive funding support.
A federal health emergency is declared in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where hundreds of families in the Love Canal area are evacuated and eventually relocated because of toxic sludge leaking into their homes. The community was built over an abandoned canal that had been filled with nearly 22,000 tons of hazardous waste over a decade. For years, families suffer health problems, including birth defects, cancers and autoimmune disorders.
The worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history occurs at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pa., when the core of a reactor undergoes a partial meltdown. Blame is placed on the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for failing to have proper regard for nuclear safety and worker training. The $1 billion cleanup takes more than six years. In 1986, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine spread tons of radioactive material, killing 31 people immediately and affecting thousands more.
In response to the Love Canal disaster in New York, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) is passed. The law, commonly referred to as the “Superfund,” requires companies responsible for toxic waste to clean up contaminated sites.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act provides for the development of underground repositories to dispose of high-level radioactive waste from defense research facilities and spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors. It also institutes a program of research and development regarding three potential sites for this disposal.
The selection of Yucca Mountain, a remote area about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nev., starts six years of environmental studies into how to safely build and maintain the site, as well as transport nuclear waste material without threatening the surrounding communities.
The Exxon Valdez oil tanker, carrying more than 53 million gallons of oil, runs onto a reef on the southern coast of Alaska. Nearly 11 million gallons of oil are spilled into Prince William Sound, making it one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s history. The oil spreads to about 1,300 miles of shoreline and is blamed for the deaths of more than 250,000 birds, sea otters, fish, and other marine animals. The National Transportation Safety Board concludes that the accident resulted from a combination of pilot fatigue, failure of navigation assistance onboard, and ineffective oversight of vessel traffic by the Coast Guard.
Passed in response to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the Oil Pollution Act increases the amount that companies must pay to clean up oil spills and restore natural resources.
President George H.W. Bush signs into law the Energy Policy Act. The comprehensive law deregulates the utility industry (with the hope of increasing competition and lowering consumer energy costs) and calls for increased energy efficiency. The law also changes the process for licensing nuclear power plants and allows the public to participate in the process.
President George W. Bush approves building the first and only national repository for high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nev. A few months later, Congress overrules Nevada’s opposition to the plan. Opponents of the Yucca Mountain facility are concerned that the transportation of 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel poses a danger to the public. Proponents argue that the environmental damage and risk of injury is limited because the waste is concealed in crash-tested containers.
In one of its most important environmental decisions in years, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases in vehicle emissions that contribute to global climate change. The Court adds that the EPA cannot sidestep its authority unless it provides scientific proof for its refusal. The Bush administration had argued that it did not have the right to regulate emissions and that even if it did, it would not do so.
A drilling rig leased by British Petroleum catches fire and sinks off the Louisiana coast in April, killing 11 people. A massive spill develops when a joint government and industry effort is unable to plug the underwater well for 86 days. Oil slicks cover thousands of square miles of ocean and coastal areas. Five million barrels of oil gushed from the well before it was capped, causing the worst accidental ocean spill in history.
On March 11, an earthquake that measures 9.0 on the Richter scale strikes off the coast of Japan and launches a tsunami that rages over the northern part of the country. The destruction sets off the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl. Explosions and leaks of radioactive gas occur in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which sustains partial meltdowns. Spent fuel rods at a fourth reactor overheat and catch fire, resulting in the release of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Radiation is detected in Tokyo’s water as well as water from the reactors that was released into the ocean.
In three environmental cases, Michigan et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that the Environmental Protection Agency must undertake a cost-benefit analysis before setting limits on emissions of toxic pollutants. The Court says the EPA violated the Clean Air Act when it did not.