It is clear that the United States has entered a new era with regard to energy, and as Lincoln once said, ‘we must think anew and act anew.” RN
It is appropriate to reflect on President Nixon’s oversight in the signing of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, signed into law 40 years ago this past Saturday. The act permitted the construction of an oil pipeline that connected the oil heavy region of Alaska’s North Slope to its South Slope at Port Valdez. The Act resulted in the eventual construction of an 800 mile North to South Trans-Alaskan pipeline—one of the world’s largest pipeline systems.
President Nixon in the Oval Office Signing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act
The primary purpose of the act was to provide much needed crude oil to the United States’ depleted supply, which had been caused in large part by the oil embargo of OPEC in the latter half of 1973.
President Nixon foresaw the prospects of an American energy crisis and advocated for exploring outer-continental shelf oil resources well before economic contingencies pushed legislators to his position.
Since 1967 and up until the beginning of 1971, the United States accelerated down the path toward an avoidable energy crisis. Rising fuel prices, occasional brownouts, and a growing awareness of environmental consequences were emblematic of the larger energy issue.
An economic pragmatist, President Nixon formulated immediate and farsighted methods towards improving the United States’ energy producing capabilities.
On June 4, 1971, President Nixon lent a far-reaching hand to Congress on matters of the environment and energy resources. Of the many points the President made in this special message, the one that proved the most direct and attainable was challenging nonetheless.
To avert imminent energy shortages, President Nixon called for an accelerated program to utilize the prolific source of oil and gas located under federal lands, particularly in the northern Alaskan shelf. Attaining Congressional support would prove incremental at best due to the wielding power of environmental interest groups and past oil spills in federally held lands. It was a challenge the President felt could be and needed to be met.
“Based on the information now at hand, I do not believe that the apparent conflict between oil and the environment represents a permanent impasse. Instead it presents a challenge—a challenge to our engineering skills and a challenge to our environmental conscience.” RN
In a Statement about the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline dated September 26, 1971, President Nixon made public his determination to meet this great challenge. In his almost three years in office, the pipeline proposal remained locked by stringent environmental review. Yet it was time spent in review that President Nixon welcomed. The arduous time spent systematically and analytically accommodating the interests between the Alaskan environment and Arctic oil, he believed, “would avoid long periods of reexamination and delay in the future.”
Perhaps most impressive to the President’s efforts was the balancing act with which he needed to satisfy the environment and the economy. After all, it was President Nixon who had signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, which allowed conservation objections the legal grounds to halt potentially environmentally damaging projects.
Working in concert with Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton and Alaskan Governor Wally Hickel, President Nixon sought to mitigate all environmental concerns. A 3,500 page environmental impact statement was finalized on March 20, 1972 that followed the guidelines set by new NEPA standards. The project seemed to be given the green light, until restrictions regarding the width of the right of way for the proposed pipeline yet again stalled the passage of legislation.
President Nixon in a meeting with Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton
President Nixon was becoming impatient with Congressional inaction–a legislative lethargy that was prevalent during his presidency. It was only after the United States experienced the tangible effects of energy crisis that Congress obliged itself to unanimously sign off on Alaskan pipeline legislation. In October 1973, oil prices immediately soared 400%, sending American retail gasoline prices to its highest point ever at 42 cents a gallon. Though only comparable to nearly $3.00 a gallon in today’s standards, the shock of such a precipitous rise forced a pivot in American economic policy.
The act signed on November 16, 1973 effectively removed all legal barriers and amended right-of-way clauses of an outdated Mineral Leasing Act that so hampered earlier passage of this law.
To this day, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has shipped over 16 billion barrels of oil. When oil production in Alaska peaked in 1988, the state was responsible for approximately 25 percent of total U.S. crude oil production. Today, Alaska provides less than 17 percent in oil production, yet still drives half of Alaska’s economy.