Steve Haycox: Spiro Agnew is the answer to a pipeline history question

There's a big anniversary coming up for Alaska next week. July 17 marks 40 years since the U.S. Congress signaled its intention to authorize construction of the TransAlaska Pipeline.

Many often assume that passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 opened the way for construction of the Alaska pipeline. And in broad strokes, that's more or less true. But for those interested in what actually happened, those strokes are misleading, and miss much.

Debate on Alaska's Native claims settlement was protracted and difficult. From 1966 until passage of the settlement act in 1971, Alaska Native leaders had to contend with state and oil industry personnel who initially didn't think widespread Native claims should be taken seriously, and then, once that reality sunk in, struggled to find a fair and equitable agreement that would facilitate Native justice and economic development. A riveting story, it has overshadowed a parallel story, one of environmentalists who fought to save wild Alaska, and natural America, from development. For the environmentalists, stopping the pipeline was a real objective, both to save the integrity of Alaska wilderness, and as a symbol of America's intention to implement fully the unprecedented National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which established the Environmental Protection Agency and provided the mechanism for constraining runaway development.

Here is some necessary background. When he was Secretary of the Interior in 1970, Alaska's Walter Hickel stated that he would issue the necessary permits for pipeline construction when he was satisfied that it would be constructed safely. Nearly contemporaneously, three environmental groups filed suit in federal court calling for a halt to pipeline planning and construction until the project conformed to the stringent requirements of NEPA. Soon afterward, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the entire pipeline project, the first major test of NEPA. In January 1971, though Hickel had been fired by President Nixon for various reasons the previous November, his Interior Department issued a draft environmental impact statement, required by NEPA; it was 196 pages. The judge, George L. Hart, found it wholly inadequate. Despite passage of ANCSA, there would be no pipeline until Judge Hart was satisfied.

Over the next 14 months, under the leadership of new Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton, a combined task force produced a new EIS, nine volumes. Later that year, Judge Hart accepted it. Then, in January 1973 a federal appeals court effectively passed the question of pipeline construction to Congress.

There was no guarantee that Congress would authorize construction. Environmentalism was riding the crest of broad, comprehensive post-war support by the American public for nature protection and preservation. At the end of the year Congress would pass the Endangered Species Act. The environmental lobby in Congress was very strong, and an environmental coalition effective at marshaling the popular will.

When Congress took up the Trans Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act in the spring, tension ran high, both in Alaska and in Washington, D.C. The legislation stated that with the new EIS, industry plans were adequate. The bill passed the House, as was expected, but no one knew what the outcome would be in the Senate. In mid-July, Alaska Senators Ted Stevens and Mike Gravel offered an amendment to the bill, prohibiting any further legislative or legal challenges to the Alaska project. This was in effect a test, to see how Senators were going to vote on the main issue. Arguments were strong and uncertainty elevated.

And on July 17, the vote was taken; the result: a 49-49 tie! As provided by the Constitution, the Vice-President, presiding officer in the Senate, cast the deciding vote, and the amendment passed.

With no further challenge permitted, the environmental case was vitiated. As if that were not enough, in October U.S. support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War led to the formation of OPEC and its embargo on oil shipments to the U.S., leading to gasoline shortages. In November, the authorization act passed the Senate 77-20.

So while it is true that without the claims settlement act there would have been no pipeline, it is also true that without Spiro Agnew's deciding vote, there would have been no pipeline. Next Wednesday might be worth a brief, Alaska remembrance.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.