Alaska Pipeline: Moving Oil Since 1977

The Alaska Pipeline zigzags about 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. (Photo by Luca Galuzzi via Wikimedia Commons)
The Alaska Pipeline zigzags about 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. (Photo by Luca Galuzzi via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1977, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was completed.

Here are some things you may not know about it.

Oil had been used as fuel on the Arctic shore of Alaska for centuries by native people, usually using oil-soaked peat for heating and lighting.

Several attempts were made to determine the feasibility of extracting this oil, but none of them made economic sense.

In 1957, oil was struck in Southern Alaska, leading to the first commercially viable oil field in the state.

In 1968, the Atlantic Richfield Company, now known as ARCO, confirmed the existence of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field on the Arctic coast, the largest oil field in the United States and the 18th largest in the world.

The problem was how to transport the oil from the far north to market. Boeing proposed a fleet of huge tanker aircraft, while General Dynamics suggested tanker submarines to travel beneath the ice cap. Others suggested extending a railroad or using ice-breaking oil tanker ships. None of these solutions was considered acceptable.

The oil companies’ best way to move the oil was through a pipeline running roughly north and south from Prudhoe Bay to the farthest north ice-free harbor, which is Valdez, Alaska on the Pacific Ocean’s Gulf of Alaska. The total distance in about 640 miles as the crow flies or roughly the distance between New York and Indianapolis.

Planning work on the pipeline began in 1968 with hope of construction beginning in 1969. However, opposition from Native Alaskans, environmentalists and in Congress delayed the construction until March 1974. As a result nearly $1 billion and almost 150 million acres of federal land were distributed to Alaska Natives.

Thousands of workers descended on Alaska drawn by high-paying jobs amid a national recession. The influx of workers with money to spend led to massive increases in property values and rent. An apartment in Valdez that rented for $285 dollars a month in December 1974, was rented for $1,600 a month just five months later. It also required a total of three roommates.

The high wages made it difficult for non-pipeline employers to keep their workers. A taxi company in Fairbanks saw an employee turnover rate of more than 800 percent, while one restaurant had a 1,000-percent turnover rate. The pay rate also enticed local police officers to leave public service to take security jobs with the oil companies at much higher pay.

This, in addition to the influx of people, led to an increase of crime and strain on local infrastructure. Some schools operated two shifts so students could work eight-hour days on the pipeline.

Tens of thousands of workers were employed during the construction. Thirty-two employees and contractors died during construction.

Once it was completed, the pipeline was 800.3 miles long. It pumps about 700,000 barrels of oil per day, well below its maximum of 2.03 million barrels per day.

It takes 11.9 days for oil to travel from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, meaning the oil travels at an average speed of 3.7 mph.

The oil must move at a certain speed or else it can freeze in the pipeline and cause blockages.

It crosses 34 major rivers and streams and its highest point is Antigun Pass at almost 4,800 feet above sea level.

The pipe is 48 inches in diameter and the pipe walls are made of half-inch-thick steel.

The biggest spill from the pipeline itself was in 1978, when 16,000 barrels leaked from a 1-inch hole of unknown origin near Fairbanks.

Once the pipeline is no longer needed, the state is required to remove all traces of the pipeline. It’s estimated that the earliest that would happen is 2032, or as late as 2075.

Our question: On what body of water is Valdez, Alaska, situated?

Today is World No Tobacco Day.

It’s unofficially National Macaroon Day, Save Your Hearing Day and National Meditation Day.

It’s the birthday of poet Walt Whitman, who was born in 1819; actor and director Clint Eastwood, who is 86 today; and American football legend Joe Namath, who is 73.

This week in 1977, the top song in the U.S. was “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder.

The No. 1 movie was “Star Wars,” while the novel “Oliver’s Story” by Erich Segal topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly take-home test question

Who was the father of the Prince William that Prince William Sound is named after?


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