The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is one of the most important cornerstones of the Alaskan economy and landscape. Completed in 1977, the Pipeline stretches from Prudhoe Bay, along the state’s North Slope, to the port city of Valdez on Alaska’s southern coast, allowing for the easy and quick transportation of oil across the world. The Pipeline is also a notable tourist attraction for many who visit Fairbanks, as much of it parallels the Dalton Highway, a major road connecting the city to Prudhoe Bay.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was mired in controversy from the moment it was proposed, and debate over its existence continues to this day. However, no one can argue that the Pipeline hasn’t dramatically affected the lives of Alaskans as well as Americans in general. Read on to learn about the history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and Fairbanks
Oil exploration and exploitation has been occurring in Alaska since the 1800’s. The Iñupiat, native to the North Slope, had a practice of using peat from nearby coastal areas as a fuel source for generations. When European explorers began visiting Alaska to map out its terrain and trade with locals, they made contact with the Iñupiat and realized that their peat was in fact saturated with oil, suggesting that there were large deposits of petroleum in the region. The first confirmed sighting of oil was made in 1836, when Thomas Simpson, a Hudson’s Bay Company officer, noted oil seepages along the North Slope.
Technological limitations prevented further oil exploration and development until the 20th century. Additionally, the remote location of the North Slope discouraged development due to the presence of more easily accessed oil deposits elsewhere. Interest in Alaskan oil increased during World War I, when the U.S. Navy began converting its ships to use oil as fuel instead of coal. This made it imperative that the U.S. secure new sources of petroleum to power its military. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted a search for oil in the North Slope from 1923 to 1925, but no action was taken afterwards.
Interest in developing Alaska’s oil deposits was renewed during World War II, with a number of surveys undertaken in the 1940’s and 1950’s. While some reserves were found in the North Slope, the sheer expense of developing them curtailed any potential exploitation. However, in 1957, the Richfield Oil Corporation successfully drilled an oil well near Kenai in southern Alaska, which sparked interest in North Slope petroleum.
In 1968, Atlantic Richfield successfully drilled an oil well in Prudhoe Bay, revealing the existence of a large amount of oil. Once again, however, development was halted due to logistics and expense. The sparse population of the North Slope meant there was little infrastructure for oil extraction. Additionally, oil tankers could not enter the Arctic Ocean to ship oil from Prudhoe Bay due to the presence of many icebergs.
To solve this problem, Humble Oil, British Petroleum, and ARCO formed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1959, a partnership designed to examine the possibility of building a pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Alaska’s southern coast. The partnership obtained government approval for a study to determine the pipeline’s feasibility, but construction was delayed after the Department of the Interior conducted an investigation claiming that the partnership’s proposal to bury the pipeline underground was not feasible. Because of Alaska’s permafrost and the heat that would be given off by the pipeline, burying the pipeline underground would melt the permafrost and cause massive damage to the Alaskan landscape. As a result, most of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System would be constructed aboveground.
Development of the Pipeline was further stymied due to a freeze on Alaskan development issued in 1966 by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. This was done in order to allow the federal government to negotiate with Native Alaskans over land claims. To remedy this, the Department of the Interior and the Pipeline partnership obtained permission from individual villages to build the pipeline. The development freeze was eventually rescinded in 1969.
However, the Pipeline still faced significant opposition from both Native Alaskans and the newfound environmentalist movement. Native Alaskans were worried about encroachment on their lands by the Pipeline’s construction, while environmentalists warned that the Pipeline might cause significant harm to Alaskan wildlife. Both groups launched legal challenges that halted construction until 1973.
In 1973, the U.S. was targeted by an OPEC oil embargo due to its support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This embargo caused gasoline shortages across the country and saw the price of oil skyrocket, causing many Americans that they needed to develop their own oil resources to avoid being held hostage by OPEC. With this in mind, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Approval Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon at the end of 1973. Construction would begin in March of 1974.
The Pipeline would take three years to complete due to poor weather and rerouting issues due to the region’s rugged terrain. 32 workers died during the Pipeline’s development. However, on July 28, 1977, the Pipeline was completed and opened for business, successfully moving one barrel of oil from Prudhoe Bay to the port in Valdez. At the same time, the Dalton Highway, a road connecting Prudhoe Bay with Fairbanks and largely paralleling the Pipeline, was also completed.
The construction of the Pipeline caused a massive shift in Alaska’s economy and culture as well as that of the U.S. at large, and it also made a major splash in global oil markets. The Pipeline’s construction saw a wave of migrants arriving in Alaska for work, which gave a boost to the state’s economy but also caused a dramatic increase in crime. The Alaskan state government also benefited hugely from the Pipeline by levying large taxes on the oil industry, which lessened taxation for ordinary Alaskans and allowed them to keep more of their money. The increased economic activity also transformed Fairbanks, which became a service center for the oil industry in the North Slope.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System had little impact on the global oil industry during the 1970’s due to the delays in its completion and the fact that Prudhoe Bay did not begin extracting oil at full capacity until the 1980’s. However, the Pipeline was a major factor in the 1980’s oil glut, in which oil prices worldwide fell dramatically due to excess production. During its peak, Prudhoe Bay represented 25 percent of the U.S.’ total oil production.
In the decades since its construction, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System has receded in importance due to the depletion of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Alaska is required by law to dismantle the Pipeline when oil production ends, though it is currently unknown when this will occur. One group that has unexpectedly benefited from the Pipeline is Alaskan wildlife, who have been spotted curling up to it in the winter to stay warm. However, the increased oil production that the Pipeline facilitated inadvertently led to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in the Pacific Ocean in 1989.
Another way in which the Pipeline has transformed Alaska is by serving as a tourist attraction. As one of the few aboveground oil pipelines in the world, visitors to Alaska often try to visit the Pipeline during their stays. Many celebrities and politicians have paid a visit to the Pipeline, including actor John Denver, former King Olaf V of Norway, and former President Gerald Ford. Most tourists who visit the Pipeline do so by traversing the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay due to the fact that the road largely parallels it.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System remains a significant cultural and economic landmark in not only Alaska, but the U.S. itself. The impact it has had on the state is immense, helping transform Alaska from an ignored backwater to a vital plank in the American economy. Its cultural and environmental majesty have also made it into one of the state’s top tourist attractions. If you are planning on visiting Alaska, you should strongly consider stopping by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in order to see it for yourself.