Trans-Alaska Pipeline Flow Going Strong After 10 Years

Associated Press

From its conception, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was destined to be a superlative among superlatives.

The final weld on the 800-mile, 48-inch-wide steel tube on May 31, 1977, signaled the end of what was then the largest construction project ever undertaken by private industry.

“It was truly an accomplishment that everyone can take credit for, that no individual can take credit for,” said Ben L. Odom, senior vice president for operations for ARCO Alaska Inc., an Atlantic Richfield Co. subsidiary.


The pipeline’s northern end is anchored at Prudhoe Bay. Nearly 20 years ago, the largest oil field in North America was found beneath the featureless tundra of Alaska’s arctic plain. Trapped in the porous sandstone of the Sadlerochit formation was the world’s 18th-largest recoverable reserve of oil.

Earthquake Faults

From Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline snakes through three mountain ranges, 834 rivers and streams, tundra and forests and over three earthquake faults.

It ends at a marine terminal at Valdez, the nation’s northernmost ice-free port.

Northern Alaska was never meant for man’s works. Temperatures ranging from 80 degrees below zero in winter to 95 above in summer tested the 70,000 men and women who labored for three years to construct the $8-billion line.

“We were conquering the unknown, trying to overcome one of the most hostile environments in the world,” said Charles F. O’Donnell, manager of the pipeline control center in Valdez.

During winter at Prudhoe, when the sun never climbs above the horizon for 56 days, fierce winds can drive the wind-chill factor to 115 below. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds.

The terrain also poses formidable challenges. About 75% of the pipeline route traverses permafrost, some of it as deep as 2,200 feet. Permafrost is rock or soil that, if undisturbed, generally remains frozen year after year.

“Our greatest problem was how to deal with permafrost, to keep the foundations of our buildings from sinking,” said William Lorenz of Standard Alaska Production Co.

Under original plans, all but a few miles of the pipeline were to be buried. But permafrost forced the builders to elevate about half the line. Included were 554 crossings designed for animals.

To prevent settling because of permafrost thawing, most production and pipeline buildings were elevated on steel pilings driven into the frozen ground.

The environment posed only part of the problem after Atlantic Richfield and Humble Oil & Refining Co. (later to become Exxon USA) discovered Prudhoe Bay’s oil wealth on state-leased land in February, 1968.

In coming years, proponents of the pipeline would face challenges in Congress and sometimes bitter opposition from environmentalists.

By best estimates, the field contains 23 billion barrels of oil, with about 10 billion recoverable through current, economically feasible methods. It also holds an estimated 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The oil literally gushes from the ground.

“I’m amazed at the pressure here,” said Byron Dotson, production manager at Prudhoe for Standard Alaska, a Standard Oil Co. (Ohio) subsidiary.

“Open a valve and the oil comes up; there is no need to pump it from the ground. The average production per well elsewhere in the United States is less than 50 barrels a day. At Prudhoe, the average is about 2,400 barrels a day.”

Standard Alaska operates the field’s western section under an agreement among the 11 companies with lease interests in Prudhoe; ARCO Alaska operates the eastern section.

A year after the Prudhoe discovery, pipeline plans were announced. The estimated cost was $900 million.

Immediately, the project bogged down in legal challenges from environmentalists who feared that the pipeline would destroy the wilderness and its fish and wildlife.

Congress intervened in November, 1973, with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew cast the tie-breaking vote.

The legislation directed the Interior secretary to authorize construction of the line and barred courts from considering environmental lawsuits.

Congress said that, because of extensive studies already completed and the national interest in getting Prudhoe oil to market, it wanted to ensure that the line was “constructed promptly without further administrative or judicial delay or impediment.”

By then, cost estimates had ballooned to $4.5 billion.

Some engineering changes were made to meet environmental concerns, and others were mandated by the federal government.

“All of our studies indicate there has been no damage to wildlife,” said George M. Nelson, president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the pipeline. “It was in our interests to build it good.”

The central arctic caribou herd, which ranges in the Prudhoe Bay area, increased from an estimated 3,000 animals in 1970 to almost 13,000 last year. But some biologists say the pipeline’s ultimate effect on the caribou is uncertain.

Lots of Mistakes

Standard Alaska’s Lorenz supervised construction of his company’s initial production facilities at Prudhoe and now is getting the nearby Endicott field ready for production.

“There were no records; you couldn’t ask anyone how to do something because no one knew,” he said. “We made a lot of mistakes, but what can you do when you can’t go to the library and ask for a book on arctic construction?”

Of special concern, with the great Alaska earthquake of 1964 still a vivid memory, were the three faults crossed by the line--the McGinnis Glacier, Donnelly Dome and Denali faults.

The Denali fault in the Alaska Range is a major, active fault. The pipeline was elevated at the point it crosses the fault. The support system allows 20 feet of horizontal and five feet of vertical movement.

Less tolerance was built into the McGinnis Glacier and Donnelly Dome fault crossings.

From an elevation of 37 feet at Pump Station 1 on the North Slope, the pipeline climbs to its highest point, 4,739 feet, at Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, 166 pipeline miles south of Prudhoe Bay.

On June 20, 1977, the first crude from Prudhoe Bay burbled toward Valdez.

“Our people were all psyched up, waiting for the final gun,” Odom said. “We had worked hard; we had done everything we could think of to make it work right.”

Even 10 years later, those who were there have vivid memories of the day oil started down the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Barney Dotson, Jim Johnson and Chuck O’Donnell were apprehensive.

Bill Howitt was supremely confident.

For Jim Gilroy and Jack Barr, it was just another day on the job.

“I had absolutely no doubt that it would work,” said Howitt, start-up engineer for the northern portion of the pipeline.

“In the weeks before start-up we had to go over such an incredible list of checkout items that I really didn’t have time to think about start-up itself. Only after we finished was I able to sit back and reflect about what we had done. That’s when the enormity of the thing began to sink in.”

Howitt is now superintendent of the marine terminal at Valdez for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., a consortium of eight companies, which built and operates the pipeline.

Worry Acknowledged

Johnson, a technician at Pump Station 1, acknowledges that he worried as the clock ticked toward June 20, 1977.

“The main thing, I think, was that everyone was concerned here at Pump 1 that with all this equipment--this 800 miles of pipeline, the systems, subsystems, this gigantic job never before attempted--that it would work.

“And it did,” Johnson said.

“There were apprehensions, of course,” said O’Donnell, who worked in Alyeska’s operations control center at Valdez.

“Would the oil front gel in the cold pipe? Could we overcome the altitudes on the pipeline route, from virtually sea level to more than 4,700 feet in the Brooks Range? Was the line too sophisticated?

“We had theories of what to expect, but they were only theories until oil started flowing,” said O’Donnell, now manager at the operations center.

It was tense as the minutes ticked off and the crew kept tabs on a stream of radio and telephone traffic. Messages flashed on a video display terminal until some wag somewhere along the line tapped out: “Oil? What oil?”

The tension broke like a collapsed dam.

At that moment, Dotson was harboring doubts at Pump Station 8, near Fairbanks.

‘So Monumental’

“At all the pump stations, at the terminal at Valdez, I think things were so huge, so monumental, we wondered whether they would work,” Dotson said.

Gilroy was a production operator at a plant where gas and water are separated from crude drawn from the Prudhoe field.

“I really didn’t think about oil-in,” said Gilroy. “We had so much to do getting ready for start-up that it was just a note in a newspaper to us. I suppose some of the people at Prudhoe were excited about being here, the hype about the pipeline itself, but it was just another job.”

A drilling superintendent for Standard Alaska Production Co., Barr says his memories focus on the equipment used then and now to punch holes through the frozen tundra to the oil below, rather than start-up.

“I don’t think there was anything special about that day. We were just a part of the thing; we drilled the wells that got the oil for the line,” Barr said.

The original Prudhoe wells were drilled from open rigs, and it was brutal work in winter when below-zero temperatures grip the flat semiarctic coastal plain.

Since then, technological improvements have increased the mobility in biting cold.

675 Wells

In all, 675 production wells have been drilled at the Prudhoe Bay field.

Most of the field’s 26 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is being forced back into the ground to enhance oil recovery, but some is used to fuel oil operations. No domestic market exists for the gas because of huge supplies in the lower 48 states. Some producers, however, are trying to sell the gas to Pacific Rim nations.

The pipeline start-up proceeded with only minor hitches, and William Darch, then Alyeska’s president, said the builders and operators had done a good job. “Our destiny is in our hands,” he said.

Heated to 140 degrees before it went into the line, the oil sloshed south behind a mechanical device called a batching pig. The batching pig forced nitrogen ahead of it to purge the line of combustibles.

The oil was tracked by technicians following the sounds of the batching pig as it passed through the line, sounds similar to those made by freight cars as they pass over rail connections.

“I think the most memorable moment for me came at Pump 3 when I heard the pig come through the line ahead of the oil, pum-pum, pum-pum, and we were able to verify that everything was working as designed,” Howitt recalled.

Four-Day Trip

It had taken the oil a little more than four days to travel the 103 miles from Pump Station 1 to Pump Station 3.

On July 4, a crack in the pipe caused by the injection of supercooled nitrogen was discovered ahead of the oil, just short of Pump Station 8.

Four days later, after the damaged pipe was replaced and the oil had passed Pump 8, the station was rocked by an explosion and fire that killed one man.

A black cloud rose high in a cloudless summer sky, visible even from Fairbanks, 30 miles northwest. Rivulets of burning oil ran into the surrounding birch forest. The spill was relatively minor, 300 barrels.

Officials blamed human error. Using remote control, the Valdez operations center isolated the pump house from the flow of oil in four minutes.

The pump house was destroyed, but the main line suffered no damage and the oil continued south. It would take eight months to get Pump Station 8 back into operation.

On July 19, a piece of heavy equipment damaged a check valve just south of Prudhoe Bay, and 1,000 barrels of oil sprayed over the tundra.

The next day, the oil reached Pump Station 9.

The marine terminal at Valdez was still 251 miles down the line.

There the 120,000-ton tanker Arco Juneau would take on the first load of Prudhoe crude.

One of Emery McGowen’s many tanker voyages earned him a footnote in history. On Aug. 1, 1977, McGowen was entrusted with the first load of crude from Prudhoe Bay.

McGowen had been in the tanker trade for a good share of his 60 years, and now his command was the 883-foot ARCO Juneau.

Carrying 843,000 barrels of oil, the vessel slipped her lines at the Valdez marine terminal of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and headed for a refinery at Cherry Point, Wash.

If emotions were running high for McGowen, they were not apparent.

McGowen, who retired to Huntington Beach, Calif., exactly five years later, was the stuff of which tanker captains are made. His every move was calculated--a must with 35.4 million gallons of oil sloshing about under his feet.

His crewmen, always out of earshot, called him “Big Mac.”

Boats of Protesters

Ushered ceremoniously out of Valdez harbor by a water-spouting tugboat, the ship was greeted by a gaggle of small motorboats when it arrived at Cherry Point five days later. The boats carried protesters objecting to tanker traffic in Puget Sound.

McGowen zeroed in on one boat trailing a plume of blue smoke and displaying a sign reading: “We Don’t Want It.”

“I could sympathize with (him) if he were rowing,” McGowen said, swearing.

Visions of a parade of tankers moving out of Valdez spawned fears of disastrous oil spills in fishing communities along the shipping routes.

In Cordova the year before, the 800 fishing boats based there had caught fish and shellfish worth about $15 million wholesale. Much of the catch came from Prince William Sound, used by tankers leaving Valdez and heading into the Gulf of Alaska.

There were no major tanker spills until early this year, when the hull of the tanker Stuyvesant sprang a leak, spilling an estimated 14,000 barrels of oil as the ship battled a winter storm in the Gulf. The oil dispersed 180 miles offshore.

Giant Wave

McGowen recalled one winter voyage at the helm of the tanker Sag River. The ship plowed into a giant wave, and a wall of water flew the length of the ship and cracked windows on the bridge, 90 feet above water level.

The first pipeline oil had reached Valdez late July 28, setting off a chorus of sirens, automobile horns and cheering bar crowds. It was the culmination of years of effort.

Construction of a system to get to market the 10 billion barrels of recoverable crude found at Prudhoe in 1968 was delayed for years by legal challenges. Work did not start until 1974.

In the 10 years the pipeline has been operating, it has moved more than 5 billion barrels of oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. says 27,300 barrels have been spilled in that period.

The largest spill was 15,000 barrels. That came in February, 1978, when someone used explosives to punch a two-inch hole in the line near Fairbanks.

There always have been concerns about pipeline vulnerability. The military is increasingly running war-game practices about terrorist sabotage. Alyeska runs daily helicopter and truck patrols along the line.

Increased Flow

The daily flow through the pipeline has risen from the start-up volume of 1 million barrels to the design capacity of 2 million barrels with the addition of oil from nearby fields.

To the builders and operators of the pipeline, the record has proved the integrity of the line, in design and construction.

“We’ve had some problems with settlement of the pipe, but any time you put a piece of metal in the ground in this environment you have to be concerned,” said Alyeska President George M. Nelson. “It has run a lot better than we anticipated.”

At Standard Alaska Production Co., one of the co-owners of the pipeline, President George N. Nelson, no relation to Alyeska’s president, voices similar sentiments.

“There’s been a minimum amount of trouble,” he said. “I’ve never before worked with such a trouble-free system.”

The pipeline brought prosperity to the state and to local governments along the route.

Alaska has collected $23.4 billion in royalties and taxes from Prudhoe Bay production. About 80% of the state’s annual revenues come from oil, although a slump in oil prices in the last year has prompted some policy makers, primarily Gov. Steve Cowper, to ask if such dependence on one industry is wise.

$150 Million in Taxes

Property taxes levied by local governments along the pipeline total more than $150 million a year.

Valdez, devastated when the great earthquake of 1964 rumbled through south-central Alaska, has reaped many of the pipeline’s benefits. The city of about 3,500 collects about 94% of its $30-million annual operating budget from pipeline property taxes, including the $1.4 billion marine terminal.

“We have the world’s first commercially used microwave aircraft landing system, the largest floating dock in the world . . . and a $1.5-million teen center, among other things,” said Mayor John Devens. “And we attribute all this to Alyeska.

“But money isn’t all of it. Alyeska also provides leadership for the community. Two Alyeska people are on the City Council, and there are Alyeska people on the school board and on the board of the Chamber of Commerce.”

The mayor says he does not believe that the quality of life in Valdez has suffered because of Alyeska.

“Some of the best salmon fishing in the area is right under Berth 2 at the terminal, and the state’s largest salmon hatchery, Solomon Gulch, operates less than a half-mile from the terminal,” he said.

“This community is very pro-development oriented, and Alyeska has been an extremely good corporate neighbor.”

Not everybody agrees. In March, 1985, fishermen and others alleged that Alyeska was polluting the Valdez harbor with toxic waste water.

The accusations have been investigated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The investigation is continuing.

At the age of 10, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline still has many years of life, industry officials agree. Just how many years, and what will become of the line when it outlives its usefulness, are questions not so easily answered.

The pipeline sees some hard use. Since 1977, 5.5 billion barrels of oil have flowed through it. The line has been shut down 29 times for repairs or maintenance. It has sagged in places. Saboteurs blew a hole in it.

But the pipeline today is as sound as when it was built, says the man charged with keeping it in good health.

“The system is available to run 99.46% of the time,” said Alyeska’s Nelson. “That service factor is unequaled anyplace in the world, we believe.”

Alyeska, on behalf of a consortium of eight oil companies, spends nearly $200 million a year to operate and maintain the pipeline.

‘Go On Forever’

“In some respects, it’s like an airplane,” Nelson said. “You keep rebuilding and replacing parts that need it, and the thing will go on forever.”

Technological advancements have improved the pipeline’s efficiency, Nelson said. They also have headed off problems before they became emergencies. In 1984, technicians using a new monitoring instrument detected a sagging section of underground pipe beneath the Dietrich River in the Brooks Range.

The pipeline was shut and diverted around the sag.

“Since then, we’ve used that instrument to determine exactly where the pipeline is in all buried sections,” Nelson said. “We think the odds of that happening to us again are much less than they were two to three years ago.”

Nelson believes that improved technology will keep operating costs around $200 million a year “for the foreseeable future.”

The life span of the pipeline, then, becomes a matter of how long oil companies can feed it oil. Few in the industry are willing to hazard a guess.

More May Be Recovered

When the line was built, people tossed around a figure of 30 years, said Standard’s Nelson. But that figure was based on the projected life of the Prudhoe Bay oil field, not of the pipeline, he said. Nelson says more than the estimated 10 billion recoverable barrels may be squeezed out eventually, extending the field’s productive life.

“The industry will come up with new technology to recover more of that 13 billion barrels” more in the 23-billion-barrel field, he said. He cites the giant east Texas field, which has produced oil for 50 years, far longer than anyone anticipated.

Production at Prudhoe Bay originally was projected to peak in 1985 or 1986. But new extraction techniques, such as pumping water and natural gas back into the field, have kept production high, and the current output of 1.6 million barrels a day is not expected to start declining until at least 1989.

Technological advances could extend the lives of other, smaller North Slope fields--Endicott, Kuparuk River and Lisburne. More oil discoveries or improved extraction methods could extend the pipeline system east and west along the North Slope.

Wildlife Refuge

These days, most heads are turned eastward to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles away. The U.S. Interior Department says there is a 19% chance that economically recoverable oil lies under the plain, and a 5% chance that 9.2 billion barrels could be recovered.

Such a pool could add 30 years to North Slope oil production, the oil industry says--if Congress approves development in the refuge, which is closed to drilling. Environmentalists oppose such drilling, contending that the chances of recovering a substantial amount of oil are not high enough to risk harming the fragile environment.