Nixon and the Marine Environment

By Barkdull, John | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Nixon and the Marine Environment

Barkdull, John, Presidential Studies Quarterly

Nixon and the Environment

In 1967, the Liberian-flagged tanker 7brrey Canyon ran aground near England's Land's End, the first supertanker accident and still among history's worst oil tanker spills.(1) In 1989, the Exxon Valdez grounded in Alaska's Prince William Sound, causing the largest U.S. oil spill ever. Responding to accidents and to growth in the oil tanker trade, U.S. policy makers sought national and international rules to reduce ship pollution. Although dramatic incidents such as the Exxon Valdez might create the opposite impression, the efforts of these policy makers have met success.(2) Important international initiatives occurred during Richard M. Nixon's presidency, when the United States led international negotiations for a comprehensive new treaty to regulate ship pollution.

Why did the United States lead on this international environmental issue during a Republican, pro-business president's term? The answer lies partly in the U.S. national interest. Yet, policy in the national interest does not occur automatically. Fragmented political systems such as those in the United States should rarely achieve such results. How did the United States do so?

Four years before 7brrey Canyon, Rachel Carson's influential Silent Spring had "sounded an alarm" about the planet's endangered state, a cry crucial to the rise of environmental consciousness.(3) Two years following Torrey Canyon, only a month into Nixon's first term, an offshore oil well near Santa Barbara, California, blew out, fouling many miles of beach and drawing the nation's attention to oil pollution. Such events set the stage for Earth Day, April 22, 1970. In 1972, the international community registered its concern at the Stockholm United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment. In short, the modern environmental movement emerged from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.(4)

In 1968, Richard Nixon won the White House. No one had reason to expect that the Nixon administration would lead on environmental policy. By 1972, the League of Conservation Voters would sponsor a book on Nixon subtitled The Politics of Devastation, giving the president little credit for environmental leadership.(5) Yet, Nixon presided over the most productive period in U.S. history for environmental legislation and policy.(6) Russell Train observes,

   By 1973, the president could point to the passage into law of major
   legislative proposals of his administration, including: air quality
   legislation, strengthened water quality and pesticide control legislation,
   new authorities to control noise and ocean dumping, and legislation
   establishing major national recreation areas at New York City and San
   Francisco as well as regulations to prevent oil and other spills in ports
   and waterways.(7)

Besides legislation, the Nixon administration employed executive actions to advance environmental protection, including use of the Refuse Act of 1899 to control pollution and waste dumping into the nation's waters, regulations governing the use of poisons and pesticides on public lands, and declaration of parks and historic sites. The administration put whales on the endangered species list, ending U.S. commercial whaling. Nixon ordered federal agencies to review their activities' environmental impact, and he canceled the Cross-Florida Barge Canal and an Everglades jetport for Miami. In foreign policy, the administration achieved international cooperation to strengthen oil pollution control, regulate ocean dumping, condemn whaling, manage the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders, and support the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment.(8) If due to Nixon, the domestic and international initiatives represent "an extraordinary environmental record in almost every respect."(9)

Was Nixon the Environmental President?

Although the Nixon era produced much new environmental policy, opinion on Nixon's responsibility ranges widely. …

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