Trans-Alaska Pipeline

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Trans-Alaska pipeline

The discovery in March 1968 of oil on the Arctic slope of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay ignited an ongoing controversy over the handling of the Arctic slope's abundant energy resources. Of all the options considered for transporting the huge quantities found in North America's largest field, the least hazardous and most suitable was deemed a pipeline to the ice-free southern port of Valdez.

Plans for the pipeline began immediately. Labeled the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS) its cost was estimated at $1.5 billion, a pittance compared to the final cost of $7.7 billion. The total development cost for Prudhoe Bay oil was likely over $15 billion, the most expensive project ever undertaken by private industry. Antagonists, aided by the nascent environmental movement, succeeded in temporarily halting the project. Legislation that created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and required environmental impact statements for all federallyrelated projects added new, critically important requirements to TAPS. Approval came with the 1973 Trans-Alaskan Authorization Act, spurred on by the 1973 OPEC embargo, the world's first severe energy crisis. Construction quickly resumed.

The pipeline is an engineering marvel, having broken new ground in dealing with permafrost and mountainous Arctic conditions. The northern half of the pipeline is elevated to protect the permafrost, but river crossings and portions threatened by avalanches are buried for protection. A system was developed to keep the oil warm for 21 days in the event of a shutdown, to prevent TAPS from becoming the "world's largest tube of chapstick." Especially notable is Thompson Pass near the southern end, where descent angles up to 45 degrees severely taxed construction workers, especially welders.

Everything about TAPS is colossal: 799 mi (1,286 km) of 48-in (122-cm) diameter vanadium alloy pipe; 78,000 support columns; 65,000 welds; 15,000 trucks; and peak employment of more than 20,000 workers. TAPS has an operations control center linked to each of the 12 pump stations, with computer controlled flow rates and status checks every 10 seconds.

The severe restrictions that the enabling act imposed have paid off in an enviable safety record and few problems. The worst problem thus far was caused by local sabotage of an above-ground segment. In spite of its good record, however, TAPS remains controversial. As predicted, it delivers more oil than West Coast refineries can handle, and efforts continue to allow exports to Japan.

In 2001, the Secure America's Future Energy (SAFE) Act, based on the President's National Energy Policy, stated among its goals the 2004 renewal of the existing TAPS lease, along with the construction of a new pipeline to transport natural gas from Alaska to the 48 contiguous states. Another SAFE goal, the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling , is still heavily backed in government despite a resounding Senate rejection of the project in 2002. Both utilitarian conservationists and altruistic preservationists are at loggerheads over energy development in Alaska, while many native Inuits consider this an opportunity to solidify their growing involvement in the American economy.

See also Oil drilling; Oil embargo

[Nathan H. Meleen ]



Dixon, M. What Happened to Fairbanks? The Effects of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline on the Community of Fairbanks, Alaska. Boulder: Westview Press, 1978.

Roscow, J. P. 800 Miles to Valdez: The Building of the Alaska Pipeline. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977.


Hodgson, B. "The Pipeline: Alaska's Troubled Colossus." National Geographic 150 (November 1976): 684707.

Lee, D. B. "Oil in the Wilderness: An Arctic Dilemma." National Geographic 174 (December 1988): 858871.