Environmentalism and the US Energy Crises


By Patrick N. AllittEmory University

The success of the first Earth Day celebration coupled with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 gave a boost to environmentalism in the USA. However, the energy crises of the 1970s tested America’s dedication to environmental protection. Was their a change in the national concern for environment?

Tellico Dam in Loudon County, Tennessee on the Little Tennessee River.
The construction of the Tellico Dam was delayed by the environmentalists. (Image: Ralf Broskvar/Shutterstock)

The National Environmental Policy Act was debated in Congress in 1969 and signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. Thus, the Environmental Protection Agency saw the light of the day. The agency specified that before any new construction project took place, it was important to highlight how the project would change the local environment, and the potential harm that it could do to the surroundings. Environmental damage was no longer an externality to businesses, it was something they had to factor into every project right from the beginning.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973

The legislation enhanced the status of national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, and wild and scenic rivers. All these things were recognized now as national assets, and enjoyed the benefits, but also sometimes the hazards of federal protection. Perhaps most striking was the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The act prevented the extinction of animals by giving the government a right to intervene if there was a potential threat to an animal’s population. The idea was to preserve the habitat in which the animal lived. The loss of habitat was linked to extinctions.

That became a very valuable tool in the hands of environmental groups who wanted to prevent development projects from taking place. The Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to build the Tellico Dam, but the environmental impact statement showed that it was going to have an adverse impact upon a tiny fish called the snail darter.

No one had anticipated that a fish whose existence most people knew nothing about could become so important, but it did. The environmentalists were able to delay the building of Tellico Dam for a long time, until eventually, snail darters were discovered in other parts of the Tennessee Valley environment.

The Middle East and America’s Energy Policy

Ever since it had come into existence in 1948, Israel had been actively or latently at war with its Arab neighbors. There had been a series of flash points in 1956 during the Suez crisis, in 1967 during the Six-Day War, and then in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War.

There was a very powerful pro-Israel lobby inside the United States. The American policy had been highly favorable to Israel since its creation. However, the more America sided with Israel in its conflicts with its neighbors, the more the neighbors (which were oil-producing states) were tempted to retaliate by discrimination against the United States. Consequently, the oil exports into America were drastically cut down in 1973.

The Yom Kippur War and the Alaskan Pipeline

The oil had been discovered on the north slope of Alaska; that is on the Arctic Sea coast of Alaska. The deposits had been known about since the late 1960s, but the dilemma for everyone was how to transport the oil from the frozen solid area to other parts of the country. The logical solution was to build a pipeline across Alaska. Environmentalists had said that its environmental impact would be very great, and mainly negative.

The Yom Kippur War in 1973 showed how vulnerable America was because its economy depended partly on imported oil. Therefore, the Congress went ahead to vote for the building of the pipeline.

The Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, viewed from the Richardson Highway.
The political volatility of the Middle East led to the construction of the Alaskan pipeline. (Image: cybercrisi/Shutterstock)

The Alaskan Pipeline: A Technical Triumph

The pipeline crossed the Brooks range and the Alaska range, and it was able to accommodate enormous variations in temperature. In the middle of the winter, when it was empty, the temperature could go down to minus 60 or 70 degrees. When it was full in the middle of the summer, its temperature could rise up close to 100 degrees.

The metallurgy was developed to such a point that it was possible to accommodate the massive temperature variation. It had to cross earthquake faults, and earthquake proofing was built into the pipe. In two places, it also crossed caribou-migration routes, and so the pipeline had to be buried so that the caribou wouldn’t be deterred from going along their usual routes.

The issue there was keeping it cold enough. This is permafrost (land that is a few feet below the surface is permanently frozen solid). The pipeline had to be jacketed in a concrete surround, through which pipes carrying liquid nitrogen were included, to keep it cold enough, and to prevent it from thawing the permafrost.

The Disastrous Oil Spill and the Massive Cleanup

Port Valdez was the transfer point. The oil was taken out of the pipeline, loaded onto supertankers and transported to Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez sailed out of Port Valdez down Prince William Sound, slightly off course. The captain was drunk and not on the bridge, the mate at the helm was unqualified to sail in those waters. The navigation beacons were turned off for routine maintenance. The result was that the ship ran aground on the Bligh Reef nearby, and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea.

The Exxon Shipping Co. sent thousands of workers to try to clean up the mess. By the mid-1990s, the ironic long-term consequence of this massive cleanup was already clear. The areas that recovered quickest were the areas where the cleanup didn’t take place. The places that were slowest to recover were those where many people came to the beaches with cleanup gear. They had to live somewhere, so they created pollution of their own by using detergents against the oil.

Over the course of 10 years, the dissipation of the oil pollution was nullified. The disaster clearly showed how environmentalism had become central to the national outlook by 1989.

Common Questions about Environmentalism and the US Energy Crises

Q: What caused the massive oil spill in 1989 in America?

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on the Bligh Reef and caused a massive oil spill in the sea.

Q: How did the Environmental Protection Agency affect the construction businesses?

Environmental damage was no longer an externality to businesses. They had to think about the environment in every project right from the beginning.

Q: What warnings did the environmentalists give for the Alaskan pipeline?

Environmentalists had said that its environmental impact would be very great, and mainly negative.

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