How the EPA Works

EPA Programs

Members of the EPA and U.S. Coast Guard in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina
Members of the EPA and U.S. Coast Guard in Gulfport, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina
Barry Williams/Getty Images

The EPA initially focused on creating programs that enacted several key pieces of legislation. The first, of course, was NEPA, which called for broad environmental improvements. But the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972 were also important early laws for the EPA to enact.

Today, the EPA manages more than a hundred programs that uphold a dozen major laws or statutes. The programs can be broadly broken down into six categories: air, pollution prevention, wastes and recycling, toxics and chemicals, water and pesticides. We'll discuss some of the EPA's most famous programs that fall into these categories.

  • Energy Star. Energy Star, run in conjunction with the United States Department of Energy, helps consumers select efficient appliances and homes, saving them money and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 2006, Americans offset GHG emissions equal to 25 million cars by purchasing products or properties that earned the Energy Star.
  • Acid Rain Program. In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act and called for reductions in the emissions of sulfur dioxide SO2 and nitrogen oxides NOx. In response, the EPA instituted the Acid Rain Program (ARP) which uses a rate-based regulatory system to limit NOx and a cap-and-trade program to cut SO2 emissions. The success of SO2 trading suggests the United States could support a broader GHG emissions trading program.
  • Endangered Species Protection Program. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) calls for the protection of endangered or threatened species and their habitats. While the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service administer the ESA, the EPA ensures through the Endangered Species Protection Program that other governmental agencies do not violate the act by using unsafe pesticides.
  • Food Quality Protection Act. The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act called for a change in national pesticide registration. To enforce the act, the EPA tests pesticides and antimicrobials to determine tolerances, aggregate risks and cumulative exposure.
  • Asbestos Program. Asbestos is a fibrous material used in some insulation and fireproofing. When the fibers become airborne and are inhaled, they can cause serious health problems. The EPA's Asbestos Program provides resources on how to identify and manage asbestos.

As a governmental agency, the EPA is under constant scrutiny and has its share of critics. In the next section, we'll learn about some recent EPA controversies.