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The Great Alaska Pipeline

Oil – like marmite, skinny jeans and the rightful user of aeroplane armrests – is a deeply divisive topic. Most of us use it to some degree or another but the argument of where and how we should be drilling for it tends to split people. Then there is the question of transporting it, which is the focus of our video today – the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). 

Stretching for 1,288 km (800.3 mi) from Prudhoe Bay on the northern extremities of Alaska to Valdez in the south on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, crossing three mountain ranges and more than 30 major rivers and streams the TAPS first began pumping oil south in 1977. It was one of the first large-scale engineering projects that needed to deal with permafrost and its construction saw an employment boom in Alaska. 

But as I’m sure you can guess, this was a project that was fought over bitterly during its early stages and I think it’s only fair to say that the resentment continues to linger. With oil production slowing and the pipeline being passed along a series of new owners, the future of this metallic snake through the Alaskan wilderness is far from certain. 

Alaskan Oil 

People have had a pretty good idea that the northern stretch of Alaska is rich in fossil fuels for hundreds of years. Long before anybody started specific exploring, whalers operating in the far north observed the local Iñupiat people using oil-saturated peat as fuel for heat and light as early as the start of the 19th Century.    

But it wasn’t until 1923 that President Warren G. Harding designated the area as the Naval Petroleum Reserve Number 4, which was around the same time that the Navy began using oil rather than coal. Exploration of the area over the next two years focused primarily on mapping with no actual drilling taking place. 

This was also the time of the Teapot Dome Scandal which no doubt added plenty of negativity over the entire oil industry in the United States. If you’ve never heard of this, it was considered, until Watergate, to be the “greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics”. I won’t dive headfirst into this murky pit except to say that this was a bribery scandal that led to the first-ever imprisonment of a cabinet member in U.S history. Albert Bacon Fall, the Secretary of the Interior at the time, was sentenced to a year in prison for accepting a bribe amounting to $385,000 ($5.9 million today) from Edward L. Doheny regarding leases of the Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming. Strangely enough, Doheny seemed to escape scott-free, but it severely damaged the administration and most likely put the brakes on further oil plans.       

Almost nothing happened in the area until World War II when the United States, perhaps sensing the need for a large increase in oil production, commissioned the most comprehensive oil exploration to date starting in 1944. They certainly found several oilfields, but none were seen as financially viable at the time. 

That changed in 1957 with the discovery of the Swanson River Oil Field near Anchorage which would go on to become Alaska’s first major commercially producing oil field. This led to a flurry of activity and further exploration and by 1965 five oil and 11 natural gas fields had been developed in Alaska. 

In 1967, exploration commenced in the far north close to Prudhoe Bay, where oil experts had long-predicted reserves lay but due to the environment and difficulty with transportation, it would have to be something big to really make financial sense. And guess what, it was. 

The Prudhoe Bay Oil Field 

By June 1968, after months of speculation, it was announced that the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field was a true monster, with an estimated 25 billion barrels of oil, making it the largest in North America and the 18th largest in the world. But this was the equivalent of finding tons of buried treasure close to the top of Mt Everest, how on earth do you transport it all out of this harsh region.  

Aerial View of Prudhoe Bay
Aerial View of Prudhoe Bay.By Rickmouser45, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

To give you a quick idea about the location we’re discussing, Prudhoe Bay lies at the very top of Alaska, still 4,285 km kilometres (2,663 miles) from the north pole, but this is pretty much the top of the world. It typically gets down to around -31 C (-25F) during the winter and reaches a balmy 13 C (55F) over the summer. It’s sparsely populated, and I do mean sparsely with just 2,174 people recorded from the area’s 2010 census. 

The question of how to transport such vast amounts of oil from the Prudhoe Oil Field to locations around the world led to several rather imaginative concepts. Boeing suggested a titanic 12-engine plane called the RC-1, which, had it been built, would have been twice the size of an Antonov An-225 Mriya, the largest aircraft ever, while also carrying a payload of five times that of the Antonov.

Other concepts included tanker submarines that would pass beneath the Arctic ice cap, extending the Alaska Railroad to Prudhoe Bay and building ice-breaking oil tankers. This last theory was tested in 1969 when the SS Manhattan was fitted with an ice-breaking bow, powerful engines, and hardened propellers and sent out to try and pass through the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Beaufort Sea. The ship made it through the passage twice but suffered structural damage and it was deemed too risky. All hope remained with an idea that most knew would not only be highly controversial but hugely difficult – the building of a pipeline.

Alyeska Pipeline Service Company 

In 1968 the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company was formed by ARCO, British Petroleum, and Humble Oil and immediately asked the U.S government for permission to begin surveys over the possibility of building a pipeline stretching the length of Alaska. This subsequently led to an application for a 30.5 metre (100-ft) wide right of way and a subterranean 122 cm (48-inch) pipeline with 11 pumping stations along the way. The company also requested a second right of way to run parallel to the pipeline where a construction and maintenance highway would be added. 

The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, as it zig-zags across the landscape.
The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, as it zig-zags across the landscape.By Luca Galuzzi, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The proposal was immediately met with scepticism, not the least the idea of burying a pipeline in permafrost then pumping hot oil through it which would most likely melt the surrounding area and so causing the entire line to become unstable. There was also the question of native lands and whether the line could or should pass through them, though as any history aficionado of the United States will tell you, that hasn’t really stopped engineering or settlement projects in the past.  

There had been a freeze placed on projects involving native tribes since 1966, but representatives from the pipeline along with the Department of the Interior were able to get around this by offering settlements directly to the tribes involved. By the end of September 1969, all the relevant local groups had agreed and work was poised to begin on one of the most ambitious pipeline operations the world had ever seen. 

Fierce Opposition

But don’t get too excited just yet, because this project needed to wither some truly seismic opposition before anything got going. Opposition to the Alaskan pipeline principally came from two groups that broadly worked together; the indigenous people and conservationists.

While the local tribes had technically signed waivers regarding the project on their land, their opposition grew out of the fact that no indigenous people would be hired for this massive project while thousands would need to be shipped north to work on the line. Then there was the question of a just and fair settlement with the first offer of $7 million ($47 million today) being met with little more than derision. This led to the slightly odd situation where the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company began lobbying the government in support of the Native people. It was clear just how important building this pipeline had become.  

In October 1971, President Richard Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act which meant the native groups would renounce their land claims in exchange for $962.5 million ($6.5 billion today) and 148.5 million acres in federal land. This would be divided equally among the different villages and would also include shares in the company and their subsequent dividends.  

The conservation objections were equally fierce and ranged from the effects it would have on the local caribou population, the damage the pipe would do to the permafrost, pollution and the general effect on the geographical area. The battle was fought bitterly in both the courts and in Congress and reached all the way to the Supreme Court, though in April 1973, the court declined to hear the case. 

Eventually, it came down to the politicians as the amendments to the Mineral Leasing Act was debated through 1973. In a dramatic finale, the fate of the Alaskan pipeline came down to a vote in the U.S Congress and quite astonishingly it ended tied at 49-49. The deciding vote was cast by pipeline supporter vice president Spiro Agnew and on 2nd August, the same bill passed the Senate. The pipeline was nearly there. 

The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place thanks to a huge slice of luck. In 1973, Arab countries began an oil embargo on the United States in response to it supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. With the U.S importing 35% of its oil at the time, the effects were noticeable, especially when petrol prices began climbing around the country. 

In response, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act was rushed through the House, which essentially torpedoed any remaining objections. On 12th November it passed Congress and the following day did the same in the Senate. On 23rd January 1974, the deal was signed by the oil companies involved and construction that had come so close four years before began two months later.  

Construction    

The construction of this vast pipeline took place between March 1974 and early 1977 at a cost of $8 billion ($34.9 billion today) which worked out at around $10 million per mile in 1977 or $43 million today. 

The above-ground section of the line, which runs for around 675 km (420 miles) follows a zigzag pattern to allow for expansion or contraction of the pipe because of temperature changes. This section of pipe is supported by 78,000 anchor structures, between 213 metres (700 feet) and 548 metres (1,800 feet) apart, which hold the pipeline in place. In places where the heat might affect the permafrost, the anchors come with two 5cm (2 inches) pipes which help to divert the heat into the air and away from the permafrost.

rans-Alaska pipeline map
Trans-Alaska pipeline map.By Flominator, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The pipeline was built using both 12.2 meters and 18.3 meters (40 and 60-ft) sections of pipe. In total, 42,000 of these sections were welded together using 66,000 field girth welds to form the continuous pipe that we see today. Roughly 611 km (380 miles) of the pipeline is buried and 71 gate valves can block oil flow in either direction in the event of a leak, along with 11 pumping stations pushing all that oil south.   

A total of 77,000 people worked directly or indirectly on the pipeline between 1974 and 1977, while the peak number of workers physically working on the line was 28,000 in autumn 1975. This wasn’t exactly the safest working environment and 34 people died while constructing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.  

Effects

The building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System saw thousands of workers heading to Alaska looking for well-paid work during a recession period in the United States. This led to numerous so-called ‘boomtowns’ along the line where workers sought housing and I’m willing to bet plenty of other activities. It didn’t take long for towns like Fairbanks, which had been firmly behind the pipeline plan, to turn against it thanks to a hike in crime, huge increases in housing prices and general friction between the local people and the pipeline workers.

And you know what else has a habit of following well-paid men with nothing to do when not working and plenty of pent up frustration – you’ve guessed it, prostitution. By 1976, things had gotten so bad in Fairbanks, there was even a shootout between pimps on the streets. Before the pipeline, Fairbanks had been a relatively quiet little town with a population of just under 15,000 – but not anymore. 

But in general, the state of Alaska has done rather well from the TAPS. Before, it had had one of the highest rates of tax in the country, but once the oil money began rolling in, it soon became the lowest. Money generated was eventually placed into a long-term saving fund with dividends given out each year to Alaskan residents based on the profitability of the pipeline. Last year, that dividend figure stood at $992, but as recently as 2015, it was over $2000. 

Incidents on the Line

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built to withstand earthquakes, fires and other natural disasters but the most notable incidents have mostly come from a group of mischievous animals with a tendency to cause trouble – humans. 

In February 1978, a mysterious 2.54-centimetre (1-inch) hole was blown in the pipeline leading to 16,000 barrels of oil leaking out and a shutdown of 21 hours. In 2001, a drunk hunter with a .338-caliber rifle decided to take aim at the Alaskan pipeline. Now, we’ve all done stupid things when we were drunk, maybe you’ve said something stupid to somebody or maybe you even threw a party while your parents were away only for them to return mid-revelling to find various phallic like shapes drawn on the expensive family artwork. But as bad as that would be, it is small fry compared to the level of drunken stupidity that came over Daniel Carson Lewis on 4th October 2001. 

You see, the pipeline has been purposely built to withstand gunfire but that day it did not. One bullet, one hole – and the second-largest mainline oil spill in pipeline history was underway. All in all, 6,144 barrels of oil leaked out and nearly 2 acres of tundra had to be removed and cleaned. The pipeline itself was closed for three days and Mr Lewis was convicted of a variety of charges, which sadly didn’t include being a complete moron.     

The Line Today

The line opened for business in 1977 and has been operating constantly ever since. In fact, it actually can’t stop operating because the pipes would freeze if warm oil was not consistently pumped through it. The amount of oil running south has been gradually decreasing, but that’s certainly not because of a lack of it. Broadly speaking, the slower the oil is travelling down, the longer the pipeline will last while maximising profits for the company. The number goes up and down over time, but it’s currently hovering around half a million barrels per day – less than a quarter of the maximum capacity of 2.14 million barrels per day. Since the pipeline opened, roughly 15 billion barrels of oil have travelled through it from the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field.

If we start at the very north, oil is extracted through various pipelines coming out at roughly 49 °C (120 °F ) and cooled to 44 °C (111 °F) before reaching Pump Station 1. Of the 11 pump stations built, only five are currently operating and these all use natural gas or liquid-fueled turbines to push the oil southward. 

Back in the ’80s, it would take just four and half days for oil to travel the length of the line, but that figure has now reached 18 days. At the end of the line is the Valdez Marine Terminal where oil is stored before being loaded onto waiting tankers. The terminal can hold 9.18 million barrels of oil, which is 1,460,000 m3 — 51.5 million cubic ft – enough to fill the Capitol rotunda in Washington DC 40 times, in its eighteen storage tanks each 19.3 metres (63.3 feet) tall with a diameter of 76 metres (250 feet). The terminal has 4 tanker berths and has filled over 19,000 tankers since opening in 1977.

The Future

The future of the oil industry as a whole is very much up in the air. Its fall from grace has seen production slowed dramatically in recent years and with the use of renewable energy and even natural gas surging, it’s not clear how or when oil production will eventually peter out. 

The last two decades have seen ownership of the line come and go, with Mobil selling their stake to Williams Companies, who in turn sold it on to Koch Alaska Pipeline Company three years later. Koch lasted nine years before selling their shares on to other partners, while BP has just finalised the sale of its 49.1% ownership share to Hilcorp Energy Company. I don’t know much about the profitability of the oil industry, but it appears as if some are trying to get out of the game. 

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System has been a grand success in that it has been successfully delivering oil to Valdez now for over 40 years. There were plenty of difficulties leading up to it all and even during the building work as thousands of bored and frustrated workers certainly left their mark on Alaska, but the residents of this northern state have been handsomely compensated ever since. 

The pipeline has achieved its objective, which was to provide the seemingly impossible task of getting oil from the very top of Alaska to the very bottom, but with oil prices falling along with profitability, the glory days of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System are certainly behind us and its end might come sooner than most people had once anticipated.  

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