President Nixon signs Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act on November 12, 1973.
With the authorization of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline, Nixon successfully balanced the Nation’s energy needs with its newfound environmental consciousness.

Despite an atmosphere of negativity surrounding the extraction of crude oil, the United States has greatly expanded domestic crude oil production over the past 6 years, and with that has come an increase in oil infrastructure. Vocal dissidents have come out en masse against recent pipeline proposals. Over the past year alone, controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has ignited a national conversation over cultural and environmental preservation of land. The conflict between energy interests and cultural/environmental preservation has traversed many decades, and a look back at the Nixon years might lend perspective for the contemporary scene.

Some 45 years ago, President Nixon presided over a crude oil pipeline proposal that was far larger in proposed production capacity than what the DAPL is currently projected to deliver. In June of 1969, after confirming the existence of a large oil field in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast of Northern Alaska, the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) formally applied to the U.S. Department of the Interior for a permit to build an oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

Called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the proposed 800 mile pipeline running north to south of the Alaskan land mass would convey up to 2.2 million barrels of oil per day. Pressure from rising energy consumption coupled with tight energy resources (think blackouts and brownouts of the late 1960s, particularly in the northeast) and “macroeconomic” events such as the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 made the pipeline proposal economically expedient.

Even before the oil crisis of 1973, President Nixon publicly supported the development of the pipeline, stating that the “development of the Prudhoe Bay reserves is of great importance both to the State of Alaska and to the oil reserve posture of this Nation.” However, he also urged for a thorough accommodation of the Alaskan environment and a guarantee that Native lands be omitted from the construction’s path. Throughout the federal review process, President Nixon navigated the challenges of an emerging energy crisis and the pushback from blossoming environmentalism to effectively secure a critical domestic energy source for the United States.

On June 4, 1971, President Nixon became the first American president to deliver a comprehensive energy policy to Congress. He outlined an aggressive program of research and development into available and new energy supplies, as well as utilization of already available energy resources located in federal lands. Included in the president’s call to explore energy resources of federally-owned lands was the prolific source of arctic oil and gas located in the north slope region of Alaska.

Despite the urgency that President Nixon placed on accessing the region’s oil reserves, he welcomed stringent environmental review. After all, it was Nixon who introduced and signed the country’s first major environmental legislation, the National Environmental Policy Act, which to this day promotes the preservation of the environment by ensuring that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment before taking on major projects. Moreover, Nixon presided over what was at the time the largest Native land claims settlement in the history of the United States. On December 18, 1971, he signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which exchanged $962.5 million and 148.5 acres in federal land for annulment of native claims to disputed land. The act resolved long-standing issues over aboriginal land claims in Alaska and sought to stimulate economic development throughout the state. It also paved the way for the unabated construction of the oil pipeline, a project which would not only benefit the state but its indigenous population.

I believe we can meet that challenge, proving that natural resources–in the Arctic or elsewhere–can be developed and transported in a responsible manner which respects environmental values.

Concerns over a major pipeline project were not overlooked. Many Americans, including an editor of a magazine from New York City, wrote the President expressing worry over the impact a major oil pipeline would have on the ecology of the Alaskan wilderness. This was indeed an area which the President sought to alleviate – what he conveyed as a “challenge to our engineering skills and a challenge to our environmental conscience.”

Responding on behalf of the President, Edward Essertier, Assistant to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, ensured that the administration embraced meticulous environmental review. He also underscored the challenge facing the United States – the undeniable fact that the country urgently needed a new domestic supply of oil and gas to meet its fuel needs in the years ahead at prices that people could afford to pay.

When OPEC organized an oil embargo against the United States following events during the Yom Kippur War in October of 1973, the integrity of America’s energy apparatus faced immediate challenges that, if not allayed, would have devastating effects on the economy. The immediate impact on energy prices from the embargo demonstrated that the United States was very far from energy independence. In a message to the nation on November 7, President Nixon asked for the legislative authority to authorize construction of the Alaska pipeline. Not two weeks later, he was signing an authorization bill that passed through both the House and Senate. The Alaskan oil pipeline, after four years of extensive environmental reviews and legal battles, would be constructed.

Alaska Oil Pipeline