Skip to main Content

Biden and the pipeline

  • Author: Alaska_Politics
  • Updated: April 29, 2016
  • Published August 25, 2008

From Michael Carey, former ADN editorial page editor, TV talk show host and occasional columnist in the newspaper --

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's choice for vice president, has been a senator since 1972.

He is one of only five senators who were present in 1973 when Congress passed legislation authorizing construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline system (TAPS).

Biden, then 30, was the youngest member of the Senate and not a leader in the lengthy debate over the pipeline. But his voting record is striking - at least to an Alaskan interested in history.

Biden was a reliable "no" on TAPS. In July, when the Senate passed the Gravel-Stevens amendment allowing immediate construction of the line and precluding further judicial review, Biden voted no. The amendment passed after Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a 49-49 tie.

In November, Biden voted against final passage of the bill. The vote was 80-5, Biden one of the five.

The pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez was controversial, mostly because of the potential environmental consequences and widespread public distrust of the oil companies. Some senators also felt the line should go from Alaska to the Midwest.

The July vote fractured both parties, especially the Democrats, who were in the majority. Only six Democrats not from the South voted with Gravel and Stevens: Robert Byrd (West Virginia), Gale McGee (Wyoming), Alan Bible and Howard Cannon (Nevada), Vance Hartke (Indiana) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii). (Inouye is one of the current senators who served in 1972. The others are Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Byrd and Stevens and Biden.)

Henry Jackson, sponsor of the pipeline bill that passed in November with the Gravel-Stevens amendment and arguably the most influential senator in the debate, voted against Gravel-Stevens in July. As did other Senate giants such as Democrats Mike Mansfield (Montana), Frank Church (Idaho) and Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota). Among the Republicans, Mark Hatfield (Oregon) voted "no," as did Bob Dole (Kansas) and Charles Percy (Illinois.)

In November, Biden was a holdout "no" with Democrats Birch Bayh (Indiana), Harold Hughes (Iowa), William Proxmire (Wisconsin) and Republican Edward Brooke (Massachusetts).

Biden was not a household name in 1973. One of the Alaska newspapers spelled his name "Byden." As a young senator, he would have been extra attentive to his constituents and his leaders - men like Jackson, Mansfield, Humphrey and Church. Nevertheless, he had to go out of his way to put himself on the losing end of an 80-5 vote.

Biden's position on the trans-Alaska pipeline did not stand out in 1973. Thirty-five years later, it does, at least in Alaska where the pipeline has generated immense private wealth and pays for most of state government.