WASHINGTON -- President Nixon signed into law today a bill aimed at expediting construction of the Alaskan oil pipeline, and said for the time being the nation's energy crisis must take precedence over environmental considerations.
The pipeline is envisioned as a partial, permanent answer to the oil shortage caused by the current embargo by Arab oil-producing countries on shipments to the United States. Nixon hinted at lifting of the embargo at some unspecified time in the future.
Interior Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton said later he had no knowledge of any possibility that the embargo might be lifted.
Nixon said a change in Arab attitudes was "just a possibility. While that can happen, even if it happened tomorrow, we would still have this energy crisis for this year."
For the short run, he said, environmental concerns must take second place in the energy situation. Environmentalists opposed the Alaska pipeline on grounds that the hot oil flowing through it would melt the tundra and cause permanent ecological changes.
Nixon insisted that safeguards imposed on the pipeline project by the Interior Department would protect the Alaskan ecology.
Turning toward Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., Nixon said, "you're an environmentalist," and asked whether the project would present problems for environmentalists.
"No great problems," Hatfield replied.
"That's a senator's way of saying there could be," Nixon observed.
The pipeline will be built by a consortium of oil companies which formed the Aleyaska Pipeline Service Co. Its president, E. L. Patton, said in a statement after the signing of the bill:
"We are hopeful that we will be able to begin building the pipeline next year so that Alaskan oil can be delivered to the United States West Coast during 1977."
In a bill-signing ceremony in the White House Oval Office, Nixon said that "in the long run, we can have both" the needed energy supplies and adequate environmental safeguards.
The ceremony was attended by 17 members of Congress, including all those who served on a House-Senate conference committee that worked out differences between the House and Senate bills.
The measure grants a right-of-way for the 789-mile pipeline to carry oil from the frozen north slope of Alaska to the ice-free Port of Valdez for reshipment to West Coast refineries.
Nixon said environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency would "have to cooperate" in efforts to deal with the immediate energy crisis.
The goal is for the nation to achieve national self-sufficiency by 1980, he said.
Nixon said he was signing the bill because of the urgent need for the Alaska oil despite what he termed "a couple of clinkers" added to the bill by the Senate. He had announced the day before that he would sign the bill.
The project still faces possible delays. Environmentalists, who have fought it from the beginning on grounds it would harm the Arctic tundra, are expected to file new lawsuits. Environmental suits knocked out an earlier right-of-way grant, making it necessary for Congress to pass the new bill.