What Is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

The EPA Explained

environmental protection agency building in Washington, D.C.
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a U.S. federal agency that's responsible for protecting human health and the environment. In short, the EPA is a gatekeeper of sorts for protecting the environment and the people who live in it. One of the EPA's primary duties is developing and implementing environmental regulations on a national scale. 

Those regulations can impact the environment and the economy and, in turn, your individual quality of life. Learn how the EPA works, why the organization is sometimes criticized, and how it impacts your environmental and financial health

Definition and Examples of the Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency is a government agency that was established in December 1970 under the direction of former President Richard Nixon. The EPA’s mission is to protect the health of all U.S. residents by researching, monitoring, and enforcing activities that safeguard the air, water, and land.

As part of that mission, the EPA conducts the following work: 

  • Uses the best available scientific information to reduce environmental risks on a national scale.
  • Ensures federal laws that protect human health and the environment are administered and enforced fairly, effectively, and as Congress intended.
  • Considers natural resources, human health, economic growth, energy, transportation, agriculture, industry, and international trade as essential factors of environmental policy.
  • Makes sure all parts of society—communities, individuals, businesses, and state, local and tribal governments—have access to accurate information to effectively mitigate risk. 
  • Monitors contaminated lands and toxic sites to make sure they are cleaned up by potentially responsible parties and are then revitalized.
  • Reviews chemicals in the marketplace for safety.

Michael S. Regan is the current administrator of the EPA. As administrator, Regan is responsible for managing and enforcing the country's environmental laws, preparing the EPA's annual budget, and leading government-related environmental efforts in the U.S. and abroad. 

  • Acronym: EPA

How the EPA Works 

The EPA's mission revolves around creating and maintaining a healthy environment for Americans, which includes protecting the air, water and land. Its current strategic plan—put in place in fiscal year 2018 and continuing through fiscal year 2022—is concerned with evolving the way the agency does business and delivers its results. The end goal is creating a healthier, cleaner environment that supports a thriving economy. 

EPA’s strategic plan covers three main goals: to deliver a cleaner, healthier environment; to create more effective partnerships by being more transparent; and to increase certainty, compliance, and effectiveness.

There are a few key ways that EPA works toward its goal, all explained in detail below. 

Developing Regulations

The EPA is authorized by Congress to write regulations explaining the legal, technical, and operational details that help to implement laws. EPA regulations span a number of business sectors, including:

  • Agriculture
  • Automotive
  • Construction
  • Electric utilities
  • Oil and gas
  • Transportation

By examining those industries, the EPA can write regulations on factors such as air quality, emergency solutions, pesticides, waste, and more. Specific examples include policy focused on reducing lead in drinking water and restoring historic wetlands.

When the EPA writes a regulation based on an environmental law, it may be left to state or tribal agencies to enforce it. 

Enforcement

The EPA is also responsible for enforcing the regulations it creates. For example, the agency may ensure that companies are compliant with the Clean Water and Safe Water Drinking acts when disposing of waste. The EPA also investigates criminal violations of environmental laws. 

When necessary, the EPA can take civil or criminal action against violators of environmental laws. In some cases, these violations can lead to fines and/or imprisonment.

Conducting Research

The EPA consistently conducts research to learn more about environmental issues and identify potential solutions to problems like air pollution and water pollution. Research can be shared across government agencies, academic institutions, and private-sector companies. As part of its core goals, the EPA plans to be more transparent on its findings. 

Funding Research

In addition to conducting its own research, the EPA also funds environmental research efforts outside the agency. Research grants provide funding for a variety of projects, including research on air, climate change, health, and water.

The EPA does not handle issues pertaining to wildlife or nuclear waste. Those areas are primarily handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management.

What It Means for Individuals

As a result of the EPA’s efforts, you benefit by having cleaner air to breathe and safer water to drink. In addition, the various activities the EPA carries out can have an economic impact, too.

Consider the Clean Air Act, which was designed to reduce air pollution. According to the EPA, the act's health and economic benefits go hand in hand. As fewer workers are subjected to air pollution, they experience better health and quality of life. And because they're able to remain healthy, they're at lower risk for missing work due to illness. Increased productivity results in a stronger economy, as more workers are able to remain on the job, too.

The EPA can impact the economy on a broad scale, but it can also impact you on a personal level. Fuel emission regulations are a good example. 

EPA-imposed regulations on vehicle emissions help to improve air quality and reduce pollution. The regulations require carmakers to develop new technologies for managing emissions, too. As a side benefit, those technologies can help increase fuel efficiency. In turn, you buy gas less frequently and thus save money.

Purchasing products that are Energy Star certified—the government-backed token of energy efficiency—can also help you save money while aiding the environment. The program encourages the manufacture of energy-efficient appliances, including refrigerators, washers, dryers, and heating and cooling systems. When you buy an Energy Star–certified product, you can promote a cleaner environment while also saving money on energy costs.

Making certain energy-efficient improvements to your home, such as installing a geothermal heat pump, could make you eligible for a renewable energy tax credit.

Criticism of the EPA

Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency often fall into one of two camps: They claim the EPA is overreaching or that it's not doing enough to protect the environment. 

Many may claim that EPA is treading on the rights of companies, business owners, states, or even individual citizens. For example, a 2012 Supreme Court case involving the Clean Water Act drew arguments that the EPA was guilty of coercing companies into compliance by threatening substantial fines for violations.

Critics have also argued that EPA regulations stifle economic growth, increase unemployment rates, and drive down company profits. Research conducted by the EPA found that regulations do have a measurable impact on the economy, but it may not be as negative as the critics claim.

On the other hand, some might say the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't do enough to maintain a clean and healthy environment and, in some cases, undoes its own efforts. For example, the EPA relaxed a number of compliance requirements at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. While the temporary enforcement policy was terminated on Aug. 31, 2020, environmentalists argued that this move would allow corporations to flout environmental laws regulating pollution, waste, and emissions.

Key Takeaways

  • The Environmental Protection Agency is a federally funded agency that's responsible for protecting environmental and human health.
  • The EPA’s main goals are to deliver a cleaner, healthier environment; to create more effective partnerships by being more transparent; and to increase certainty, compliance, and effectiveness. 
  • The EPA's programs and decisions can affect your day-to-day life and have a broader economic effect as well. 
  • Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency have argued that it overreaches its authority in some instances, while not doing enough to protect the environment in others. 


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

When and why was the EPA Created?

The Environmental Protection Agency was created in December 1970 by former President Richard Nixon. The agency's creation was prompted by a perceived need to consolidate environmental rule-making and regulation into a single body amid concerns over increasing pollution. 

Who is the head of the EPA?

The current EPA administrator is Michael S. Regan, who was appointed by the Biden Administration in March 2021.

What is EPA certification?

EPA certification means that an individual or entity has been reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency and found to meet its standards for protecting the environment. 

How is the EPA funded?

The EPA is a government-funded agency. Each year, the EPA submits a proposed budget to the president, who forwards it to Congress. Congress considers the president's budget request and passes appropriation bills to release funding to the EPA for that fiscal year.