Authors of Clean Air Act to Teach New Law Class

by |August 21, 2014
Leon G. Billings (left) and Thomas C. Jorling (right) will be teaching the Origins of Environmental Law class in the M.S. in Sustainability Management Program this fall.

Leon G. Billings (left) and Thomas C. Jorling (right) will be teaching the Origins of Environmental Law course in the M.S. in Sustainability Management Program this fall.

By Hayley Martinez

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. This fall, Columbia University is offering 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 are excited to offer a unique class on the Origins of Environmental Law: Regulation and Evolution. This class, only offered in fall 2014, will be taught by Leon Billings and Thomas Jorling, the senior Democratic and Republican staff members who led the Senate environment subcommittee which originated and developed major environmental legislation of the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund). Students will have a unique opportunity to learn about the historical, legislative and political process that led to the implementation of these laws.

“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,” said Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice in the Faculty of Law and Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “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.”

This class is particularly important when thinking about the nature of politics today—the 2013 government shutdown and the inability of Congress to agree on virtually anything. This is in stark contrast to the 1970s, when Congress worked across the aisle to enact a series of environmental laws that chartered a new course for our future and that have shaped vast improvements in the nation’s environment—and continue to do so. Yet, no new piece of major environmental legislation has been enacted since the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act—almost 25 years ago. What has changed since then?

“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.”

This class will provide some insight into the legislative and human dynamic in the 1970s versus today, and discuss how public policy shapes how environments and organizations are managed. Students will have a chance to examine the critical issues that policymakers face both past and present. They will also look at the role of the media, lobbyists and administration staff, and examine issues of partisanship and economics in the context of lawmaking. Students will benefit from the insight of Billings and Jorling, who can give firsthand knowledge about the structure and personalities of the members of the Senate environment subcommittee at that time. What was it that made that time so unique for policymaking? Is it possible to do it again?

The class will cover everything from early environmental federalism to the nature of environmental politics today. The course will be filmed and turned into a documentary about the success of environmental policymaking during the 1970s and the political and social dynamics of the era.

In addition to registered students, this course will be open to the public as a lecture series. Guests each week will join students in the class for the lecture and discussion. Seating is limited and RSVP is required.

Lecture Schedule: (click each link to register for that session)

·         September 3: Introduction to the Course and Early Environmental Legislation, Pre-1969

·         September 10: The Structure and Role of Congress in Environmental Policy

·         September 17: The Partisan, Geographic and Economic Political Context

·         September 24: The Clean Air Act: Who, What, Why?

·         October 1: The Clean Air Act: The Floor Debate

·         October 8: The Solid Waste Disposal Act and RCRA

·         October 15: The Federal Water Pollution Control Act

·         October 22: The Clean Water Act: Conference with the House Public Works Committee

·         October 29: The Nixon Veto and the Override

·         November 5: Mid-Course Correction: The Clean Air Act and Auto Standards

·         November 12: Mid-Course Correction: The National Commission on Water Quality

·         November 19: The Final Act: Superfund and the End of an Era

·         December 3: Congress Today: The Role of Campaign Finance and Fundraising

Background on Leon G. Billings:

  • Previous member of the Maryland House of Delegates.
  • Previous chief of staff for Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.
  • Previous staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution.
  • Served as chair of the National Conference of State Legislators Environment Committee.
  • Winner of the AMSA Environment Award and the CARB Haagen-Smith Clean Air Award for Environmental Policy.

Background on Thomas C. Jorling:

  • Previous commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • Previous professor and director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.
  • Served as minority counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works, including the Environment Subcommittee.
  • Winner of the Keystone Center Leadership in Industry Award and the Environmental Action Coalition Green Star Award.

For students: (ENVP U6236/SUMA 86236) This class occurs every Wednesday throughout the semester, from 11 a.m. – 12:50 p.m., in the International Affairs Building, Room 407. To register: (1) Join the waitlist in SSOL; (2) Submit an application: For questions, please contact Hayley Martinez at

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