Alaska Pipeline Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The pipeline across Alaska was one of the most ambitious and debated construction efforts mounted by private industry in American history. It presented construction problems, such as how to avoid damaging the permafrost, and aroused intense political controversy at both the state and national levels.

In 1967, Governor Walter Hickel, WalterHickel, formerly a wealthy real estate developer, issued oil leases to a section of Alaska’s North Slope that led to the 1968 discovery and verification of substantial Petroleum industry;Alaskaoil reserves in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Previously, all active exploration for major exploitable oil and gas fields had taken place in southeastern Alaska, beginning with the Richfield strike on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957, although small-scale fields had been known and operated since the 1920’s and Arctic prospecting had been under way since the 1950’s.Alaska;pipeline

Origins of the Project

The possibility of transporting Arctic oil south by tanker was tested in the exploratory voyage of the Exxon Manhattan in 1969, which successfully transited from the Atlantic to the Beaufort Sea via the Northwest Passage but was forced to alter course because of sea ice. The Exxon Manhattan’s experience meant that transport by land was the only viable option. On February 10, 1969, plans to construct the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System were announced. This forty-eight-inch pipeline across interior Alaska would move heated crude oil south from Prudhoe Bay to the ice-free port of Valdez. By September, 1969, all major surveys of the proposed overland route had been completed, and a seven-company consortium led by British Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, and Humble Oil was formed under the name Alyeska, with lease rights to portions of the new field opened for bid by the state of Alaska.

The last portion of the Alaska Pipeline is installed.

(Library of Congress)

The announcement of the existence of this new oil field touched off a complex national and local debate, which was in full swing by the autumn of 1969. EnvironmentOn one side was an array of conservationists, environmentalists, and Native Alaskans, whose chief concerns were the project’s immediate and long-term damages to the Alaskan wilderness ecosystem, on which much of the state’s tourist economy depended, and potential threats to the fisheries of Prince William Sound from tanker pollution. On the other side, defending the pipeline, were oil company executives and others in the Alaskan business community, who recognized the necessity of developing the North Slope field to expand American oil reserves and stimulate the Alaskan economy in both the public and private sectors by increasing its resource base. A nine-volume environmental impact statement, prepared by a task force from the U.S. Geological Survey and including pipeline project data provided by the oil companies, was presented to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and the public on March 20, 1972, emphasizing the numerous unknowns of the project. These ranged from how migratory moose and caribou populations would interact with the pipeline and the effects of Alaska’s frequent seismic activity, to fears of heat from the pipeline melting the supporting permafrost (creating the potential for warping and possible ruptures) and construction as a source of erosion in an already fragile environment. The design of the pipeline incorporated crossing areas to allow unimpeded passage of animals along known migration routes and used an elevated frame where necessary to remove the threat to the permafrost base. A further complication was the legally valid claim by the Alaskan Native populations to hundreds of acres of land in the absence of treaties or other historical agreements between them and the federal government that could be used as precedent for corporate acquisition or assignment of use rights.

On November 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act of 1973[TransAlaska Pipeline Authorization Act of 1973]Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act into law. Construction of the pipeline lasted from March 24, 1974, to May 31, 1977. It was built in six sections; spanned three mountain ranges and more than eight hundred bodies of water, including several rivers; and had an overall zigzag plan to allow for expansion. The Arctic oil supply was seen as addressing the problem of American vulnerability to interruptions in access to foreign petroleum sources (as demonstrated by the 1973 energy crisis) by significantly expanding exploitable reserves and as providing a new source of income to redress an unfavorable national balance of payments.

After Three Decades

The impact of the project on the financial structure and institutions of Alaska was diverse, placing new burdens on every aspect of the economy from housing to banking, construction, and transportation (in particular the airlines), and resulting in a major cash influx that stimulated price inflation in many sectors. The primary contribution of the pipeline was to generate revenue to provide nearly 90 percent of the income of the state of Alaska, which had no sales tax or personal income tax. By the end of the first decade of operation, concerns arose over problems of internal and external corrosion. However, despite these concerns, the success of the pipeline project served as a model for further construction in the Alaskan arctic, centered on deposits of natural gas rather than petroleum, which continued into the early twenty-first century.

Although the problem of potential spills was emphasized by an accident in 1978 and an act of sabotage in 2001 that involved someone shooting at the pipeline while intoxicated, the overall record of management and maintenance supports the pipeline proponents’ claims that the project has been of significant financial benefit to both Alaska and the United States. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System monitors its environmental impact on fish populations, derivative erosion, bird nesting patterns (over 170 species have been identified along the pipeline route), and permafrost dynamics, the latter of major concern, with 75 percent of the total pipeline course lying within permafrost terrain of some type. By 2007, the pipeline was moving more than 15 million barrels of oil per year, although declining overall production stimulated reexploration of the North Slope and interest in potential new fields beneath the Arctic Ocean.

Further Reading
  • “Alaska, North Slope Producers Strike Deal on Pipeline.” American Gas 88, no. 4 (May, 2006): 11. Useful summary of early planning efforts for the proposed natural gas pipeline.
  • Berry, Mary Clay. The Alaska Pipeline: The Politics of Oil and Native Land Claims. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Discussion of the political issues (especially internal Alaskan matters) surrounding the project and the financial settlements that were required to build the pipeline system.
  • Coates, Peter A. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation, and the Frontier. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University, 1991. The Alaska Pipeline and the consequences of its construction are considered within the history of conflict between supporters of development and environmentalists.
  • Cooper, Bryan. Alaska: The Last Frontier. London: Hutchinson, 1972. An account of Alaska as it was during the early 1970’s, with the effect of the proposed construction of the pipeline discussed in detail.
  • Gimbel, Barney. “The Hunt for Oil at the Top of the World.” Fortune 157, no. 9 (May 5, 2008): 96-102. Discusses the proposals for accessing the oil deposits beneath the Arctic Ocean.
  • Lasley, John. “ Steps to a North Slope Gas Pipeline.” Oil and Gas Investor (October, 2005): 64. Brief summary of the four envisioned stages of the gas pipeline development.
  • Nelson, Daniel. Northern Landscapes: The Struggle for Wilderness Alaska. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 2004. A status report on technology and wilderness in Alaska at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with a chapter on the legacy of the Alaska Pipeline project.

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