While not a household name to many Americans, the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field is integral to both the American economy and its energy independence. Situated along Alaska’s North Slope, the discovery of the oil field in 1968 revitalized the Alaskan economy and helped the U.S. lessen its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, a major concern in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
While oil production at Prudhoe Bay has been declining for several years, it still serves as a major source of energy and income for the U.S. Here is the history of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field and its significance to Americans.
The History of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field
When the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, no one could have imagined the wealth of natural resources that the territory contained. Initial development and settlement in Alaska was spurred by the discovery of gold in the late 1800’s, but by the mid-century, gold mining had receded in importance. However, oil had assumed greater import due to the shift to oil and gas for energy in the 20th century, and new deposits of oil were constantly being scouted out.
Alaska’s North Slope had been suspected to hold large reserves of oil since the 19th century. The native Iñupiat people, who resided along the North Slope, had long been observed collecting oil-saturated peat and using it as a fuel source. The Iñupiat referred to this substance as “pitch”; whalers who visited the area noticed them using it and identified it as oil. In 1836, Thomas Simpson, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, observed oil seepages along the North Slope during a survey expedition.
During the 1920’s, Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge set aside land in the North Slope for the purpose of identifying potential oil reserves. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a survey from 1923 to 1925 to better locate oil reserves, but their results were limited due to primitive oil drilling and sensing technology. During World War II, the U.S. conducted additional surveys in the area, but large-scale exploration remained off-limits due to the remoteness of the region.
In 1957, the Richfield Oil Corporation (later renamed Atlantic Richfield) succeeded in drilling a massive oil well in Kenai, Alaska, in the southern part of the state. Alaska’s first successful oil field, it inspired a new wave of interest in exploring oil deposits in other parts of the state, including the North Slope. In 1967, Atlantic Richfield began a detailed survey of the North Slope, eventually striking oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, confirming the existence of large quantities of oil and gas in the region.
The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay was hampered by the logistics of transporting it to world markets. The North Slope was sparsely inhabited and lacked the infrastructure to ship oil via sea, and massive amounts of ice in the Arctic Ocean made it dangerous for oil tankers to travel in and out of the area; travel would also be expensive due to the region’s remoteness. Oil developers eventually settled on the idea of building a pipeline across the state, connecting Prudhoe Bay to ports along Alaska’s southern coast.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was developed in order to make oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay feasible. While planned in the late 1960’s, construction did not begin until 1974 due to legal and environmental concerns. Conservationists feared that the pipeline would have an adverse effect on Alaska’s wildlife and landscape, while Native Alaskans who owned much of the land the pipeline would have to traverse balked at the idea of ceding that land to oil companies.
Approval for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was gradually secured through negotiations with various native villages in the northern part of the state. The 1973 oil crisis, in which Arab states stopped shipping oil to the U.S. due to anger over the country’s support of Israel, was also a major factor in obtaining authorization from the federal government. Mass gas shortages across the country made Americans realize that they needed a source of energy that could not be held hostage by foreign governments.
In 1973, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, clearing the way for construction to begin. The Pipeline was finished in 1977, allowing for oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay to commence. The Dalton Highway was also completed around this time, connecting Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks, deep in the Alaskan Interior, and allowing truckers and motorists to reach the oil field by land for the first time.
Oil exploitation in Prudhoe Bay peaked in the 1980’s, contributing to the oil glut of that decade and lessening America’s dependence on foreign oil. Since 1989, production at Prudhoe Bay has been in slow decline, but the oil field still yields a large amount of oil and gas each year. The boom in exploitation and construction has also made Alaska one of the wealthiest states in the U.S., and the Alaskan government has used tax revenues from Prudhoe Bay to lessen the tax burden on ordinary citizens.
In 2000, the site where the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field was discovered was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A commemorative monument marks the location. In 2006, an oil spill occurred in the western part of the bay, the largest oil spill on Alaska’s North Slope, and was attributed to a rupture in a pipeline. A later investigation that year resulted in a temporary shutdown in production after significant corrosion was found in much of the oil field’s infrastructure.
The Prudhoe Bay Oil Field has also helped engender tourist interest in Alaska. While the oil field itself is closed to public access, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is a major tourist attraction, with many visitors to the state traveling to portions of it every year. The Dalton Highway, constructed to link Prudhoe Bay with the greater North American road network, has also facilitated tourism to the Arctic, with thousands of tourists using the road to visit the Arctic Circle either solo or via guided tours.
While oil yields from Prudhoe Bay are in decline, the region still serves as an important cornerstone of the American economy and energy production. Prudhoe Bay oil is a key factor in American energy independence and the oil field remains one of the largest sources of oil and gas in the U.S. Prudhoe Bay’s impact on the Alaskan economy and tourist industry cannot be overstated, and its development has helped cement Alaska’s importance to the U.S. as a whole.