Over four years after oil companies first applied for a permit, Congress authorized the Alaska Oil Pipeline in November 1973. Running from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific,the pipeline crossed 600 miles of federal land, which made it a "major action significantly affecting the environment," thus triggering an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Standard accounts tell of revolutionary environmental laws running into the economic reality of the 1970s. What has been lost in the telling is that the pipeline approval offered Congress an opportunity to investigate the wisdom of a proposed internal improvement. The pipeline controversy was not just the first battle of the environmental decade. It also continued nearly two centuries of debate over internal improvements, public financing of private investments, federal incorporation, monopoly charters, and national security. The pipeline approval was as much a decision about political economy as it was an environmental policy decision.

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