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Environmental Law: Exploring the Influence on Engineering Design

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
April 5, 2001

Engineering design is not simply a reflection of vision and creativity; it is also an innovative response to physical principles and regulatory controls. Among the regulatory controls that shape the course of engineering design are environmental laws. This report is created both to introduce the basic framework of environmental law and to illustrate how that framework influences engineering decision-making.

Section I of this report provides a basic overview of the structure, actors, and concepts that make up the backbone of environmental law. The section addresses the role that federal, state, and local government play in shaping environmental law; the types of regulatory targets, objectives, and obligations that emerge from environmental laws; and the process by which environmental laws and regulations are made.

Section II of this report introduces the obligations imposed by some of the basic environmental federal statutes, international treaties, and common law doctrines. Specifically, Section II outlines the purpose, scope, requirements, and enforcement schemes of the following federal statutes: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, and the Pollution Prevention Act. In addition the Section discusses the potential for liability under common law doctrines such as trespass, strict liability, nuisance, negligence, and toxic torts. The significance of the Montreal Protocol, the Kyoto Protocol, and the International Organization for Standards are addressed to explore the impact of international agreement and organizations on engineering design in the United States.

Once the environmental law framework is laid down in Section I and II, Section III illuminates the influence of this framework on engineering design. First, Section III uses a life cycle analysis to conceptualize the web of environmental laws that can influence a product or process throughout its life cycle - from the extraction of the materials that create a product to the product's disposal at the end of its life.  Next, Section III focuses on how product performance standards are derived from environmental statutes and the challenges that federal agencies may face when establishing those performance standards.

This report concludes with a discussion in Section IV of the importance of designing beyond compliance. Not only do companies that design beyond compliance often benefit from monetary saving, but they also enjoy improved reputations in the community and they avoid the risk of having to react quickly to changing environmental regulations. In addition, designing beyond compliance can protect human health and the environment where regulations do not necessarily succeed in doing so.

Research Areas
Framework, Methods & Tools
Urban Systems and Built Environment
Publication Type
Full Citation
Knudsen, S. and G.A. Keoleian. "Environmental Law: Exploring the Influence on Engineering Design." University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, MI (2001)