Origins of Environmental Law

In the 1970s, over the course of a single decade, the U.S. Congress enacted a series of environmental laws that defined the direction and character of environmental policy in the United States and globally. These include laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Superfund Act that shaped the environment as we know today, and that are still being used in ways that the writers never thought possible, such as to combat climate change. In fall 2014, Columbia University offered a new class dedicated to the process that led to these seminal laws, taught by the writers of the legislation themselves.

The Earth Institute, the School of Continuing Education and the School of International and Public Affairs sponsored a unique class on the Origins of Environmental Law: Regulation and Evolution. The class was taught by Leon G. Billings and Thomas C. Jorling, the two senior staff members who led the Senate environment subcommittee which originated and developed major environmental legislation in the 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Superfund Act. Students learned about a series of environmental laws that were enacted over the course of a single decade. They gained a unique opportunity to learn about the historical, legislative and political process that led to the implementation of these seminal laws from the writers of the legislation themselves.

The class covered everything from early environmental federalism to the nature of environmental politics today. Students examined critical issues that policymakers face, and looked at the role of the media, lobbyists, administration staff, partisanship and economics in the context of lawmaking. Billings and Jorling gave students firsthand knowledge about the structure and personalities of the members of the Senate environment subcommittee at the time.

Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of Law and Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, remarked that, “Sitting with the people who actually wrote these laws with their own pens—this was all well before there were personal computers—will be a wonderful experience for our students. It’s as if we could bring Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to our Constitutional Law class. The laws our guests wrote are not just artifacts—they are the words that are still on the books and that today’s lawyers and judges are struggling with. I myself have a long list of words, phrases and commas that I want to ask about.”

“We are thrilled to bring Professors Billings and Jorling to Columbia to access their knowledge on this critical period of the history of U.S. environmental policy,” said Steven Cohen, executive director of The Earth Institute and professor of professional practice in the faculty of international and public affairs. “A key role of government in the emerging field of sustainability management is to develop effective and efficient environmental policies. We need to update our environmental laws and bring them into this century. My hope is that by looking back to our successful past, we can relearn how to face our environmental future.”


Panel Event

Course Videos

Environmental Law Materials


About the Instructors

Leon G. BillingsBillings 1 was the first staff director of the Senate environment subcommittee.  In that job  he was primarily responsible for the Clean Air Act and amendments from 1967 through 1977 and the Clean Water Act amendments from 1966 through 1977, as well as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the underlying liability authority for Superfund. During much of that period Thomas Jorling was the minority counsel and the key Republican staff member in the drafting of most of these laws.

Billings’ career began as a lobbyist for a liberal-aligned trade association, progressed through his years as environment advisor to Senator Edmund Muskie, and continued as chief of staff to Senator and Secretary of State Muskie. He served as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1982 cycle, and was elected to the Maryland Legislature, where he served from 1991 through 2002.

After he left Federal service, Billings created the Clean Air Trust and the Clean Air Trust Education Fund, both of which were dedicated to the preservation of the underlying Federal law. He served as President of the Edmund S. Muskie Foundation, managed a “Politics” program for the University of Southern California as an adjunct professor from 1982-1995, and created the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.


Thomas C. JorlingJorling1 served with the Solicitor’s office in the U.S. Department of Interior and the Counsel’s Office of the Smithsonian Institution.  He became Minority Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works in the spring of 1968.

In 1972 Jorling became professor of Environmental Studies and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he served for fifteen years, interrupted from 1977-1979 when he served as assistant administrator for Water and Hazardous Waste at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In that capacity Jorling was responsible for the implementation of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and RCRA. His office also formulated the proposal for President Carter that led to the enactment of the Superfund Act.

In 1987, Governor Mario Cuomo appointed Jorling to serve as commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, responsible for the implementation of the environmental and natural resource programs of New York State, including the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. As commissioner, Tom played a key role in the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

In 1994 Jorling became the vice president of environmental affairs for International Paper Company, responsible for environmental, health and safety programs and forest policy programs of the company.

Following retirement Jorling has been active on many non-profit Boards, including the Board of the National Ecological Observatory Network, where he also served for almost a year as CEO of this National Science Foundation-funded $500 million dollar Observatory, the Wild Center, Hoosic River Revival, and Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation.