The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is one of the most defining features of Alaska’s physical and economic landscape. Constructed during the 1970’s, the Pipeline is a key plank of the American economy, allowing for the rapid transportation of oil from North Slope oil fields to Valdez, a port city on the state’s southern coast. It is also a major tourist attraction for those who travel the Dalton Highway, a road connecting the city of Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.
Surrounded by controversy since before its construction, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System has had immeasurable impact on the lives of Alaskans and the landscape of the Arctic Circle. Read on to learn about the history of the Pipeline and why it is so important.
History of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
Oil exploration in Alaska dates back to the 19th century. The native Iñupiat people of the North Slope had a practice of mining peat for generations, using it as fuel. Europeans who explored the North Slope in the 1800’s came into contact with the Iñupiat and recognized that the peat they were using was saturated with oil, suggesting large deposits of oil in the region. Thomas Simpson, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, confirmed oil seepages along the North Slope as early as 1836.
Exploration and development remained limited until the 20th century due to technological limitations, the distance and climate of the North Slope, and a lack of necessity. During World War I, the U.S. Navy began converting its ships to use oil instead of coal, thus necessitating new, stable sources of the substance. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted explorations of the area from 1923 to 1925, but no action was taken on their recommendations.
World War II reignited U.S. interest in exploring the North Slope, and a number of expeditions were carried out in the 1940’s and 1950’s. While reserves of oil and natural gas were found, they were not developed due to expense. In 1957, the Richfield Oil Corporation succeeded in developing an oil well in southern Alaska, near Kenai, renewing interest in North Slope oil exploration.
In 1968, a drilling crew led by Atlantic Richfield succeeded in drilling an oil well in Prudhoe Bay, confirming the existence of large quantities of oil and gas. However, development was stymied by the region’s remote location. The North Slope was (and is) sparsely populated and there were no cost-effective solutions for transporting oil from Prudhoe Bay to the wider world. The problem was exacerbated by the presence of heavy ice in the Arctic Ocean, making transportation by oil tankers directly from Prudhoe Bay a dangerous proposition.
In 1969, ARCO, British Petroleum, and Humble Oil formed a joint partnership, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and petitioned the government for permission to launch a study on the feasibility of a coast-to-coast pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Alaska’s southern coast. Permission was given for the survey, but construction was delayed due to an Interior Department investigation that stated the company’s plans to bury the pipeline were not feasible. Due to the Alaskan permafrost, any attempt to bury the pipeline would result in the permafrost melting, which resulted in much of the Pipeline being constructed aboveground.
Construction was further delayed due to a freeze on development in Alaska issued by former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall in 1966, which had been instituted in order to settle Native Alaskan land claims. The Pipeline partnership and the Department of the Interior eventually secured permission from various villages to construct the pipeline, which resulted in the development freeze being lifted at the end of 1969.
Opposition to pipeline construction was still strong, however, spearheaded by Native Alaskan groups concerned over land encroachment, as well as the nascent environmentalist movement. Conservationist were concerned about the impact that the pipeline might have on wildlife, resulting in legal challenges that delayed construction until 1973.
Construction was finally approved in 1973 following OPEC’s embargo against the U.S. for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Mass gasoline shortages and skyrocketing oil prices convinced the American public and politicians that the country needed to develop its own sources of oil. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Approval Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon at the end of 1973, and construction began in March of the following year.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System took three years of construction, stymied by cold weather and routing problems caused by difficult terrain. 32 workers on the project would die during pipeline construction. On July 28, 1977, the Pipeline officially entered into operation, transporting one barrel of oil from Prudhoe Bay to its southern terminus in Valdez.
The completion of the Pipeline permanently changed the economic climate of not only Alaska, but the U.S. itself, and had a large impact on the global oil market. Construction attracted numerous migrants to Alaska looking for work, boosting the state’s economy but also leading to an uptick in crime. The increased economic activity also benefited the state government, which was able to reap considerable taxes from the oil industry, lessening the tax burden of ordinary Alaskans.
The Pipeline did not have an immediate impact on worldwide oil production due to the slowness of construction and the fact that Prudhoe Bay did not begin operating at full capacity until the 1980’s. However, the Pipeline helped contribute to the oil glut of the 80’s, in which worldwide oil prices collapsed due to excess supply. At its peak, Prudhoe Bay was responsible for 25 percent of all U.S. oil production.
In the long-term, the Pipeline will decline in importance as the Prudhoe Bay oil fields are exhausted. By law, Alaska is required to destroy the Pipeline when oil extraction ends, though there is currently no estimate on when this will occur. The environmental impact of the Pipeline has actually led to a boon for wildlife, who have been observed huddling around it in winter due to its warmth, though increased oil extraction via the Pipeline indirectly led to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
Finally, due to its unique nature as an aboveground pipeline, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System has become a major tourist attraction, with visitors around the world flocking to the state to observe it. Notable celebrities and politicians who have visited the Pipeline include former President Gerald Ford, former King Olaf V of Norway, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and actor John Denver. Many tourists choose to observe the Pipeline by traveling the Dalton Highway between Deadhorse and Fairbanks.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is one of the most unique and important pipelines of its type in the world. Its impact on Alaska is immeasurable, transforming it from a backwater into one of the economically strongest states in the U.S. Its cultural and environmental impact also made it into one of the state’s premier tourist draws. If you are planning on visiting Alaska, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is one of the landmarks that you absolutely must see.