Summary of Environmental Law in the United States

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3 Constitutional Provisions


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The U.S. Constitution does not directly address environmental protection; neither the government's authority to protect the environment nor the citizen's right to a healthy environment is mentioned in the Constitution. The Commerce Clause, which authorizes the Congress to regulate interstate commerce, is the primary source of the federal government's power to enact pollution control laws and similar regulations aimed at protecting the environment. U.S. Const. art. I, sec. 8, cl. 2. The Constitution also vests the federal government with the power to manage federally owned property, including national forests, rangelands, and parks. U.S. Const. art. IV, sec. 3, cl. 2; see also Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976). Other federal constitutional powers important for environmental protection include the power to make international treaties and the power to spend for the general welfare of the public. U.S. Const. art. II, sec. 2, cl. 2; art. I, sec. 10, cl. 1; art. I, sec. 8, cl. 1.

The Constitution also includes several critical limitations on federal authority. The most important for environmental issues is probably the Fifth Amendment's pronouncement: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." U.S. Const. amend. V. Federal or state government actions that substantially interfere with the reasonable, investment-backed expectations of property owners, or that physically occupy any private property, are unconstitutional unless the government compensates the landowner.

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