July 17 marked the 40th anniversary of a pivotal moment in Alaska history.
It came in 1973 in the U.S. Senate.
“Vice President Spiro Agnew cast the tie-breaking vote on an amendment offered by Senators Mike Gravel and Ted Stevens to remove all environmental and legal impediments to the pipeline carrying oil south from Alaska’s North Slope,” the Senate’s official Alaska timeline says.
The vote capped an epic environmental battle over the pipeline. Later that year, the Arab oil embargo would provide the final push needed to bring about the long-delayed construction of the 800-mile line.
Daniel Yergin, in his book “The Prize,” talks about the complicated road to the pipeline after the elephant Prudhoe Bay field was confirmed in 1968.
Lots of ideas were considered to get the remote, arctic crude to market: icebreaking tankers, trains and trucks, jumbo jet tankers, nuclear-powered submarine tankers.
A pipeline route into Canada also was considered, but ultimately the choice was for an “all-American route” to the ice-free port of Valdez, where the crude could be loaded aboard conventional tankers that could go to the Lower 48 or to Asia.
An oil company group including ARCO, BP and Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon) organized to build the line.
The consortium “rushed out and hurriedly bought 500,000 tons of forty-eight-inch pipe from a Japanese company; they did not think there was time to wait for American manufacturers to gear up,” Yergin wrote. “They were wrong. The pipeline was to come to a dead halt before it even started.”
Alaska Native land claims and “wrangling among the partners” slowed the project. But the real impediment was an effective legal challenge from environmentalists.
Tens of millions of dollars of stockpiled pipe and heavy equipment languished for years in the cold.
The Native claims were mostly settled in 1971, and eventually the environmental battle came to Congress.
Construction finally beginsOn a vote of 50 to 49, with Agnew casting the decisive vote as the body’s president, the Senate passed the Gravel-Stevens amendment declaring that the Interior Department had met all the requirements of NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, for the pipeline project.
Three months later, in October 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, would impose an oil embargo that shocked the nation.
Not long after, on Nov. 16, 1973, President Nixon signed right-of-way legislation, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, into law.
Construction began in 1974, first oil flowed from Pump Station 1 in 1977, and the pipeline has since moved more than 16 billion barrels of crude.
Oil revenue utterly transformed Alaska and its economy. And the hope is that the pipeline can continue to operate for many years to come, although throughput has declined to around 550,000 barrels per day, or roughly a quarter of the peak of more than 2 million barrels in 1988.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, commemorated the historic 1973 vote with a July 17 press release.
“It was a monumental decision that has shaped the trajectory of Alaska to this day,” Murkowski said.
She added: “A vast amount of oil remains as yet untapped in Alaska, most of it trapped on federal lands. It’s my hope that on this 40th anniversary of the pipeline, we’ll start to pay greater attention to the looming problem of losing a major portion of our country’s domestic oil production if more federal lands in Alaska aren’t opened to responsible development.”