Alaska’s Main Artery   Leave a comment

So, I was looking through my posts and I realized that I skipped an important point of controversy in the whole discussion of Alaskan oil – the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS). It’s been a part of my life for nearly 40 years, so it sometimes hard to remember that it was a hugely controversial construction project in the 1970s.

If Alaska were a body, the TransAlaska Pipeline System (TAPS) would be the aorta. The 48-inch steel TAPS pipeline is truly the man-made wonder of the Last Frontier, traversing 800 miles (1300 kilometers) of tundra and boreal forest, 800 rivers, three major earthquake faults and three majestic mountain ranges. The corridor includes more than 550 wildlife crossings for moose, caribou, bear, etc. Completed in 1977 at a cost of $8 billion for the two-year project, it was the largest privately-funded construction effort up to that time. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company built it and continues to maintain it to transport crude oil from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to the northern-most ice-free port of Valdez where it is loaded on tankers for the journey to US refineries. During the peak of construction, over 28,000 people were employed by Alyeska and its contractors. TAPS carries approximately 20% of the nation’s domestic oil production.

Although the North Slope’s oil had been suspected since the 1920s, it wasn’t until World War II that there was any serious interest in proving it existed, but even then, the challenges of drilling in an Arctic environment cooled interest, especially once Richfield Oil found oil in Swanson River on the Kenai.  When Atlantic Richfield began a detailed survey of Prudhoe Bay in 1968, they hit pay dirt in a field that contained at least 25 billion barrels of oil. But how to get that oil to market?

No one had ever built an 800-mile pipeline. Boeing proposed a fleet of 12-engine tanker aircraft to transport the oil. General Dynamics proposed tanker submarines. Another group suggested extending the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Prudhoe. Ice-breaking oil tankers were also proposed. Humble Oil provided that last idea was not feasible and it was generally agreed a pipeline was needed. Atlantic Richfield, British Petroleum, and Humble Oil formed a joint group to begin geological and engineering studies of a proposed oil pipeline. Hoping to start laying pipe in September 1969, they ordered 48-inch steel from Japan and applied for a 100-foot wide right-of-way to build a subterranean pipeline and 11 pumping stations with a parallel right-of-way for a support highway. The document was just 20 pages.

The Interior Department sent personnel who concluded that burying the pipeline meant to transport hot oil in permafrost soils was a majorly dumb idea. The right-of-way violated the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 by asking for more land than allowed. Secretary of Interior Wally Hickle, former governor of Alaska, moved forward with the permit and the pipeline consortium began mobilizing equipment. Then several Alaska Native groups that had previously waived right-of-way, encouraged by conservation groups asked a DC judge to issue an injunction against the project. Everything came to a screeching halt as environmental groups deluged the airwaves with predictions of environmental disaster. The consortium reorganized into the Alyeska Pipeline Services Company under a leader who began to lobby heavily for an Alaska Native claims settlement to overcome the right-of-way issues.

Alaska Native groups were mainly in favor of building the pipeline and developing the oil fields. Their objection was they wanted to financially benefit from it. Environmentalist groups mainly wanted to stop the project from being built at all. The recently passed National Environmental Policy Act did require procedures Alyeska had not yet met. Throughout the summer of 1970s, Alyeska rushed to do further research. Environmentalists called for the removal of the pipeline after it was no longer needed, but they wanted the road removed as well. They insisted the pipeline would destroy tradition migratory routes and result in the extinction of the caribou.

Native groups agreed to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. They renounced their land claims in exchange for $962.5 million and 148.5 million acres (601,000 km2) in federal land. The money was distributed among villages and regional corporations, which then distributed shares of stock to Natives in the region or village. The shared paid dividends based on both the settlement and corporation profits.

Objects about migration were laid to rest by studying the Davidson Ditch, a 48-inch water pipeline that runs for 83 miles along the Chatanika River. Caribou simply jumped the pipeline or went under it where it was raised. Pipeline proponents argued the “slow Arctic growth” argument by pointing out the trees that had reestablished in the Chatanika Valley following the cessation of dredging operations 10 years before.

The court battles continued and Congress was embroiled in an alternative route debate. Eventually, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries forced the issue with an oil embargo against the United States. The right-of-way issue was cleared in January 1974 and construction started in March.

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