Environmental law is a complex and interlocking body of treaties, conventions, statutes, regulations, and common law that operates to regulate the interaction of humanity and the natural environment, toward the purpose of reducing the impacts of human activity. The topic may be divided into two major subjects: (1) pollution control and remediation,(2) resource conservation and management. Laws dealing with pollution are often media-limited – i.e., pertain only to a single environmental medium, such as air, water (whether surface water, groundwater or oceans), soil, etc. – and control both emissions of pollutants into the medium, as well as liability for exceeding permitted emissions and responsibility for cleanup. Laws regarding resource conservation and management generally focus on a single resource – e.g., natural resources such as forests, mineral deposits or animal species, or more intangible resources such as especially scenic areas or sites of high archeological value – and provide guidelines for and limitations on the conservation, disturbance and use of those resources. These areas are not mutually exclusive – for example, laws governing water pollution in lakes and rivers may also conserve the recreational value of such water bodies. Furthermore, many laws that are not exclusively “environmental” nonetheless include significant environmental components and integrate environmental policy decisions. Municipal, state and national laws regarding development, land use and infrastructure are examples.
Environmental law draws from and is influenced by principles of environmentalism, including ecology, conservation, stewardship, responsibility and sustainability. Pollution control laws generally are intended (often with varying degrees of emphasis) to protect and preserve both the natural environment and human health. Resource conservation and management laws generally balance (again, often with varying degrees of emphasis) the benefits of preservation and economic exploitation of resources. From an economic perspective environmental laws may be understood as concerned with the prevention of present and future externalities, and preservation of common resources from individual exhaustion. The limitations and expenses that such laws may impose on commerce, and the often unquantifiable (non-monetized) benefit of environmental protection, have generated and continue to generate significant controversy.
Given the broad scope of environmental law, no fully definitive list of environmental laws is possible. The following discussion and resources give an indication of the breadth of law that falls within the “environmental” metric.