Introduction

This guide is designed to help people interested in tracking the latest changes to environmental law and policy wade their way through the layers of legislation, regulation, and other policies and orders that shape the U.S. environmental law and policy landscape. [All green text contains hyperlinks to research materials] The U.S. federal government (and state governments) are divided into three main branches. This guide will focus on the federal government, but may also be useful for tracking some state environmental law because federal law usually operates similarly to state legal schemes:

1) The legislative branch creates statutes. The federal legislature is bicameral - it contains two separate chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

2) The judicial branch contains the U.S. courts. Court opinions interpret statutes and regulations and hear common law cases where no statute or regulation is involved. The judicial branch has three levels of courts: trial courts, intermediate courts of appeals, and the high court. The high court in the federal judicial branch is called the U.S. Supreme Court.

3) The executive branch is headed by the President and contains the cabinet and federal agencies that create and enforce regulations. The executive branch implements and enforces the laws created by the legislative branch and interpreted by the judicial branch.

Tracking environmental laws is a form of legal research. When you think about researching government records, it's useful to know where the various types of records and documents can be found:

  • The Constitution is the foundation for all of the government structures and rules - it establishes the structure and scope of government and the rights and duties of citizens
  • Executive branch: Presidential records including Executive Orders and memoranda, regulations, and other regulatory material, agency records
  • Legislative branch: Statutes and legislative materials including bills, legislative testimony and hearings, and Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports
  • Judicial branch: Court opinions, court motions and pleadings, court dockets

Tracking Environmental Statutes

Statutes are often simply called "laws" even though they are not the only form of binding rules created by the government. Although many documents are created during the legislative process, the only legally binding pieces are the statutes that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. Even though bills making their way through Congress get a lot of news coverage, most bills do not actually become laws. The Senate breaks down the steps of the legislative process in this chart. As you can see, there are many steps. The process is not always linear and precise. There are many variations of the steps in the chart, and a bill can "die" (or fail to move on to the next step) at any point along the way. Here are the basic steps for tracking a statute, but be aware that not all bills go through all of these steps, or go through the steps in this particular order:

  • First, find the bill number or bill name and look up the bill on Congress.gov. Congress.gov provides a lot of information about proposed bills, including the bill sponsors, the actions that have been taken on the bill, the bill text, and links to legislative documents related to the bill. GovTrack.us is another organization, independent from the government, that provides bill-tracking information and updates. Both Congress.gov and GovTrack.us let you sign up for alerts on any bill if you sign up for that resource.
  • As the bill moves through the legislative process, watch for it to stop moving (if it gets stuck in a committee, etc., it may have died) or for it to progress to another stage of the process. Every stage of the process will generate records - testimony is provided at hearings, various bill drafts and markups are posted, floor debates are recorded when the bill leaves a committee and is read on the floor of the House or Senate. Congress.gov and other legislative and advocacy organizations, may post some of these documents online. The Congressional Record is the official record of the daily Congressional proceedings, including legislative activities by the House and Senate and their committees, member remarks, and communications from the President.
  • If the bill passes in both houses of Congress and is signed by the President, it becomes a law, and there is additional information you can track during that process. The first version of the newly signed law is called a "slip law." Federal slip laws are assigned Public Law numbers (Pub. L. No.s) and often called "Public laws." Public laws are given citations according to the Congressional session number and the chronological number of the law's passage. For instance, the Clean Water Act is Pub. L. 95-271 because it was the 217th law passed by the 95th Congress. You can find public laws on Congress.gov and FDsys.gov.

At the end of each legislative session, all of the public laws are collected and published chronologically in a set of books called the Statutes at Large (Stat.). The laws are eventually codified in the United States Code (U.S.C.), which is available on several government websites. The Library of Congress has a great research guide that will show you where and how to find statutes online.

The President may also sign a Presidential Signing Statement, a written comment issued by a President upon signing a bill into law. You can find many signing statements in the Public Papers of the President of the United States, published by the National Archives (NARA). After the bill is passed, you will transition from bill tracking to tracking the administrative and regulatory impacts of the new law.

Tracking Environmental Regulations

Agencies create and enforce regulations when either a statute or an Executive Order grants them the ability to do so. Congress deliberately creates broad legislation, and agencies, staffed with scientists, engineers, and other specialists, "fill in the gaps" of the statutes, enacting and overseeing corresponding regulatory programs when statutes enable them to do so. The rulemaking processes for federal agencies are established by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and require the agencies to notify the public of certain rulemaking events by publishing them in the Federal Register. The Federal Register is the "daily journal" of the United States Government. It is published daily and contains notice of agency rulemaking, hearings, and other agency activities, as well as Presidential documents, including Executive Orders. Like legislatures and statutes, states each have their own agencies and regulations, which will not appear in the federal publications but may be found on various state websites. Here are some basic steps for tracking regulatory activity by federal agencies, which may also inform state regulation tracking:

  • First, find the Proposed Rule or the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Sometimes there may be an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which is an information-gathering notice that precedes a Proposed Rule. You can find proposed rules in the Federal Register or at Regulations.gov, which is a federal website that published proposed rules and their dockets and allows you to make comments on them online and read other people's comments. Regulations.gov is a good tool for tracking federal regulations and you may sign up for alerts on particular rules through the website. The good way to see all of the regulatory activity around a particular regulation is to look it up by Regulation Identifier Number, or RIN in the Federal Register or on Regulations.gov. Another good way is to check the agency website, which may contain materials and overviews beyond those provided in the Federal Register.
  • The regulation will pass through several phases: Proposed Rule, Notice and Comment, Final Rule, and Codification. Like legislation, a rule may not go through these phases in a linear way, the rule may be revised or shelved, and may never become a final, codified regulation. Generally, however, as the rule passes through its various phases, the Proposed Rule and the Final Rule will be printed in the Federal Register. When these items are printed, the text of the rule is accompanied by supplementary materials. The proposed rule contains an overview of the purpose for the rule, and any relevant policy or governmental activities and rationales surrounding the rule. It will also tell people when and how to comment on the proposed rule. The final rule will include a summary of the comments the agency received about the rule, and responses to those comments, as well assummary and policy information.
  • Once a regulation is finalized (aka, after a Final Rule has been published in the Federal Register), the regulation will be codified by subject in the Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.). You can also find regulations for particular agencies on agency's websites. However, if the agency websites change, the C.F.R. and Federal Register can be good places to search for the original regulatory background and information. Although there is no guarantee that environmental regulations will end up in a specific part of the C.F.R., these C.F.R. Titles contain the bulk of federal environmental regulation:
    • Title 7 - Agriculture
    • Title 9 - Animals and Animal Products
    • Title 10 - Energy
    • Title 18 - Conservation of Power & Water Resources
    • Title 21 - Food & Drugs
    • Title 30 - Mineral Resources
    • Title 33 - Navigation & Navigable Waters
    • Title 36 - Parks, Forests & Public Property
    • Title 40 - Protection of the Environment
    • Title 42 - Public Health
    • Title 43 - Public Lands: Interior
    • Title 50 - Wildlife & Fisheries

Remember, in addition to going through the rulemaking process, agencies create supplementary materials in support of their rulemaking activities like overviews and explanations of proposed rules, guidance manuals that describe how to comply with their regulations, and adjudication materials from enforcement actions related to upholding and properly executing regulatory requirements. These materials can often be found on agency websites, but if they are removed from websites, they might only be available through FOIA request.

Tracking Other Environmental Law Activity - Executive Orders & Memoranda, Judicial Activities, etc.

  • Executive Orders & Memoranda: Generally, Executive Orders and Memoranda can be found on whitehouse.gov. Executive orders are issued by the President to the officers and agencies of the federal government. They have the force of law when passed, and they direct agencies and their officers to effect, change, or continue various administrative functions, processes, and policies. Because they have the force of law upon signing, they cannot be tracked through a process, however, once an Executive Order is signed, it will may change agency and regulatory processes, and it may undergo judicial review, so keep an eye on the agencies effected by the Order, and also on the federal judiciary.
  • Case law & court orders: Because the courts interpret and effect the scope of statutes, regulations, and other legislative and executive activities, your environmental law tracking efforts may sometimes require case law research. The main type of record that comes from courts are the courts' final opinions and orders. A final opinion or order reflects the final disposition of the court, its determination of what should be done about the legal issues at hand. These opinions are available for free from Google Scholar. Make sure you select the Case Law search option. Some courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, also provide all of their published opinions online.

If you are looking for information about a case beyond its final judicial opinion, look to the court docket for the case. A court docket is a record of court case proceedings. Dockets contain a list of all of the motions, pleadings, and other activities that occurred as the case proceeded through the court. For ongoing cases, the docket will tell you when certain court actions occurred, and may provide the date for upcoming hearings and motion deadlines. Dockets also provide details about the parties and attorneys involvement in a case. Depending on the court, dockets may be difficult to find online. Federal dockets are generally available on PACER, but PACER charges a fee to access docket materials.

If you are looking for litigation about environmental issues, you may be able to find court documents and dockets online. Because parties to environmental litigation are often industrial corporations and environmental not-for-profits, you can often find information related to the litigation, including press releases and complaints, on those organizations’ websites. Also, litigation involving federal agency enforcement of an environmental law likely has press releases and related materials available on agency websites, especially the DOJ and EPA websites, because those agencies are charged with enforcing many of the environmental laws. The proceedings of the Administrative Law Judges are sometimes available online, as well.