Massive oil spills around the world, from off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969 to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker accident in Alaska in 1989, reinforced fears about the deadly combination of human error and modern technology.
The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act set corporate standards for gas mileage. Manufacturers who failed to achieve the mandated averages faced stiff fines and other sanctions.
Environmentalists began searching for alternative sources of energy. Solar power appealed to some, but it was very expensive. Solar panels remained underdeveloped and intermittent clouds cut off power. Hydropower was more reliable but most suitable for dam sites that had already been built upon. Wind power worked in some areas but those were places where few people lived. Coal power was reliable, proved and cheap but it was also dirty and dangerous.
Nuclear power had its advocates, as it had been in use since the 50s. Its fuel – uranium – was virtually inexhaustible and it produced no noxious gases or greenhouse gases. It made many nervous. The waste products of the reactors were radioactive and would remain so for thousands of years. Occasionally, nuclear reactors malfunctioned in a terrifying way. In March 1979, a reactor at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, PA nearly melted down when cooling systems failed. Tens of thousands of people in the area fled. While the reactors didn’t explode as authorities felt it might, it inspired grave thoughts about nuclear power. A more severe accident at Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine in 1986 released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and caused many deaths, reinforcing fears.
Earth Day was first celebrated in April of 1970. That same year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They followed the legislation in 1972 with the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In 1980, the Superfund was created to clean up toxic dumps.