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Alaskan Pipeline, Building of

ALASKAN PIPELINE, BUILDING OF

Native Eskimos in the Alaska territory first showed oil samples to Russians, who were looking for a northwest passage through the land in the early eighteenth century. The United States acquired the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867, and many American pioneers came to the land to take advantage of its vast natural resources, including fur, fishing, and gold. But it wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that the significance of Alaska's oil reserves were fully realized. In 1968 the oil company Atlantic Richfield discovered a large oil field in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Once the word was out, other companies flocked to the area. British Petroleum and Humble Oil companies joined Atlantic Richfield to coordinate their efforts as a single discovery unit. Other coalitions soon followed. Oil exploration experts projected Alaskan oil reserves on the same scale as the Middle East giants.

The best method to access Alaska's vast reserves was a pipeline which, though expensive, would allow for non-stop use of the product. A preliminary study outlined problems of constructing a pipeline across the state. One of the major stumbling blocks to its construction was the presence of permafrost, which covered much of the projected near-800 mile route. In addition, the pipeline would have to contend with severe climatic conditions, ranging from minus 70 F in the winter season to plus 90 F in the summer, as well as logistical problems in transporting and maintaining workers and equipment in a bleak, inhospitable terrain.

Alaska's North Shore yielded the largest oil reserves, and in September 1969 the state held a sale on oil leases in that area. Around 40 oil companies participated. Bidders were allowed one year to carry out exploration work, decide the value of the leases offered, and place a bid. Alaska gained $900,040,000 from the lease sales, equaling a historically high average rate of $2,180 per acre of oil. Most white Alaskans were thrilled with the sale. Native Alaskans and Eskimos, however, were not. They felt the transaction ignored their ownership of the land. Sympathetic environmentalists, fearing destruction of the land's natural landscape and habitat, joined in their opposition and successfully persuaded the courts to put a five year freeze on the development of the oil-rich land.

Native and environmentalist concerns about the use of the land resulted in several developments. Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement (1971), aboriginal ownersnative Alaskans and Eskimoswere accorded rights to the land, and eight oil companies paid for the privilege of working this land. Forty million acres were placed into 13 native-owned-and-administered, profit-making regional corporations. Conservationists also won a provision according 80 million acres to the creation of new national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and preserve, wild scenic rivers.

Meanwhile, oil companies geared up for production and formed the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium to build and operate the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). At the same time, the oilproducing nations of the Middle East determined to take control of the oil trade. With the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, petroleum became a precious commodity. The United States looked for ways to alleviate the affects of the hard-hitting embargo. Alaska held the answer. The legal logjam on the development of Alaska's oil resources were overridden by congressional authorization, and construction on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System began.

A U.S. Interior Department environmental impact study resulted in about 200 technical and environmental stipulations in the right-of-way agreements signed by the oil companies, the State of Alaska, and the Interior Department. These restrictions, combined with the rugged terrain, required the most sophisticated pipeline ever designed. A master of engineering, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System cost $9 billion, paid for by private industry. It runs from Prudhoe Bay, on Alaska's northern Arctic Circle Coast, and zigzags southwest across nearly 800 miles to the seaport of Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska.

Before actual construction could begin, crews selected the route through aerial mapping and ground surveys. The state granted permits allowing a pipeline width of 50 to 200 feet (15 to 61 meters), maintaining restrictions in accordance to conservation laws. A highway was built to transport manpower (20,000 people at the height of construction) and supplies along the construction route. A main concern in constructing the pipeline was to protect it from erosion. Towards this end, corrosion-resistant aluminum and plastic pipe were used to construct the pipeline, which was then pointed with asphalt and wrapped in a blanket of protective material. Refrigerated brine pumped through pipes four miles below the pipeline protects it from permafrost. Bulldozers dug trenches in the spring of 1974, and sideboom tractors laid the pipe, long sections of which were welded together to form a continuous conduit, which was tested under hydraulic pressure to ensure it could handle the traffic of oil. Parts of the pipeline necessarily ran underwater. Barges lowered this section of the pipeline underwater and weighted it with concrete or steel anchors to overcome buoyancy. To address environmental concerns, 400 underpasses and pathways were provided over buried pipeline for migrating wildlife.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System travels for almost 800 miles, 425 feet of which run on a high-rise ditch above ground, made from 78,000 eighteen-inch diameter vertical supports planted in permafrost so delicate that a one-degree temperature increase could upset its balance. The remainder of the pipeline runs underground or under water. The pipeline is subject to incredible air temperature stress (ranging from 60 F to minus 60 F). Friction generated from pumping oil at a pressure of up to 1,180 pounds per square inch keeps the oil heated to 135 F. In addition, heavy insulation can maintain the oil at a pumpable temperature for as long as 21 days, in case of a winter stoppage.

Several precautions were devised to protect the pipeline from the environment and the environment from the pipeline. Violent earthquakes have struck within 50 miles of the pipeline's route, so it was designed to withstand shocks of 8.5 on the Richter scale. In addition, should a break occur in the pipeline, over 140 automatic or remote-controlled valves are in place to eliminate an average of 15,000 barrels worth of oil spills.

Individual wells pump crude oil to a central location along the route. From Prudhoe Bay, which has a sea level height of 4,800 feet (1,463 meters) in the Brooks Range, the long distance pipeline crosses 34 major rivers and streams, traversing the Alaska Range at 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) before descending to Valdez. Once oil arrives there, tankers carry it primarily to West Coast and to Japanese refineries.

The oil began flowing in 1977, travelling through pipes controlled by devices and valves operated mainly from points hundreds of miles away. Eight pumping stations, located 50 to 75 miles (80 to 120 kilometers) apart along trunk lines, maintain the flow of oil at desired velocities. Communication to stations along the pipeline occur through radio, teletype, telephone and voice amplifiers and enable the entire system to be shut down within ten minutes if necessary. Peak flow through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System amounts to 1.2 million barrels of crude oil daily.

See also: Alaska, Alaska Purchase, Petroleum Industry

FURTHER READING

Cooper, Bryan. Alaska: The Last Frontier. New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1973.

Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska. Alaska Natives and the Land. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1971.

Hodgson, Bryan. "The Pipeline: Alaska's Troubled Colossus." National Geographic, November 1976.

Judge, Joseph. "Alaska: Rising Northern Star." National Geographic, June 1975.

Marc, B.D. Dela, ed. Advance in Off-Shore Oil and Gas Pipeline Technology. New York: Gulf, 1985.

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