Building the World

Trans-Alaska Pipeline, United States

A portion of the Alaska pipeline, from University of Minnesota Duluth,

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, running from Prudhoe Bay to the ice-free southern Alaska port of Valdez, where the oil could be transferred to tankers, was one of the largest privately financed construction projects ever undertaken. The result is a steel pipe (in effect, a miniature tunnel) running 789 miles (1,270 kilometers) in length but only 48 inches (122 centimeters) in diameter. When the Exxon Valdez struck rocks on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, enough oil to fill 125 Olympic-size swimming pools gushed into the water. The disaster launched one of the largest cleanup efforts in history.


Discovery of large petroleum deposits at Prudhoe Bat in Alaska’s North Slope region in 1958 proved to be an economic bonanza. Alaska garnered $900 million when the state sold the oil leases in 1969. And the wealth was shared. Personal income tax for residents was abolished in 1980 due to the tremendous profits from oil. But there was more. In 1982, the statement government began making an annual oil-dividend payment to every man, woman, and child who lived in the fabled state of Alaska.


A group of oil companies set up the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company to design, build, and operate what was officially called the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), British Petroleum (BP), and Humble Oil were the partners in the consortium that applied to the United States government for a right-of-way permit to build a pipeline in 1969. Construction finally began in 1974 after the lengthy process of amending the minerals rights act stipulating a width limit of right-of-way that would need to be widened by an Act of Congress. There were also the matters of other rights – those of the indigenous people of Alaska. Over time, another oil company was to become involved in the region, Exxon. In 2000, ARCO joined British Petroleum, BP.


Arthur Goldberg, from Northwestern University, at

The Iñupiat people who lived on the North Slope knew there was oil in the ground. For thousands of years before ARCO and EXXON the indigenous people mined peat for fuel and light, finding it saturated with oil. By 1836, whalers were arriving in the area and observed the Iñupiat using the substance. Charles Brower, a whaler who operated trading posts, saw the flames and immediately contacted a geologist. The native population would later figure prominently. In 1902, when the United States Department of Agriculture reserved 16,000,000 acres (64,750km) for Tongass National Forest, the Tlinglit people protested. Some years later (1935), Congress finally agreed to allow the Tlinglit to sue. A long case ended in 1968 when the United States paid the native group $7 million. This set a precedent. So, when the Alaska pipeline proposed to run right through the land reserved for Native Americans, the native peoples were ready: the Alaska Federation of Natives, newly created, hired Arthur Goldberg, former Supreme Court Justice. Their counsel proposed a price for ceding the land to the pipeline deal: $500 million and 40 million acres of land (160,000 km). Negotiations dragged on but there was pressure to begin building the pipeline. In the end, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act. The final price? $962.5 million and 148.5 million acres of federal land. Native Americans formed regional and village corporations and gave shares to the people in their district. The deal also stated that the right-of-way for the proposed pipeline would be free and clear. With this accomplished in 1971, the discussion moved on to the environment.


The Exxon-Valdez spill clean up efforts, from National Resource Defence Council, at

But the trouble was just beginning. There was the matter of the environmental impact statement, now required under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that took effect in 1970. When the Secretary of the Interior stated the agency was ready to issue a permit in May of 1972, objections were immediately raised. For one, the pipeline’s right-of-way would violate the terms on the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. As a result, the Section 28 of the earlier law was amended to accommodate the pipeline. Another objection had been overcome. But environmental problems were to re-emerge. NEPA objected that the Alyeska (ancient term for Alaska, an Aleut word meaning “great land”) Pipeline Service Company (APSC) had neglected to provide enough information in their 12,000 page report. For example, there was no alternative route, perhaps running in part through Canada, that could be environmentally less risky. But two factors loomed large. First, in a decision that would echo that made by Canada that construction the Canadian Pacific Railway would not to loop down through Chicago to avoid mountains (but risk bi-national issues), the United States favored keeping the oil at home. However, in the law authorizing the pipeline, Congress kept the door open. Secondly, the “energy crisis” of the early 1970’s in America due to an embargo on Arab-sourced oil, meant long lines at the gas pump. Both these rationales are clearly stated in the law authorizing the pipeline. Later, an environmental disaster would bring unwanted attention. While it did not involve the pipeline itself, the Exxon Valdez oil spill dumped 257,000 barrels of oil. As a result, 1,300 miles (2,000 kilometers) were coated with toxins. The sad statistics of wildlife deaths included 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, 22 whales, and countless billions of salmon and herring eggs.


A smart PIG, from

Alaska Pipeline construction, conducted in difficult terrain, resulted in several innovations. Permafrost zones were noted to be unstable, especially south of the Brooks Range. In that same area, earthquake dangers were also apparent. Instead of burying the pipeline, it was built above ground. The fear was that in permafrost areas the hot oil carried through the pipe would melt the permafrost and harm the natural ecological balance, not to mention the danger of causing a sag and leak in the pipe. For this reason, oil is cooled to about 120F (50 C) before the liquid enters the pipe system In cases where the pipeline is built above ground, it is wrapped in several inches of fiberglass thermal insulation and covered with aluminum sheet metal. When underground, there is a cooling system. Other cold weather innovations include the development of drag reduction using chemicals. Injection of such an agent was first used in 1979 at Pump Station 1; the procedure was new at the time and has become standard practice. But one of the most valuable inventions was “smart PIGs,” or pipeline inspection gauge, a device that cleans and inspects the interior of petroleum transmission pipelines.


SERVS pulled together a kind of environmental-systems view, a big picture that should be part of every environmental impact study. It is ironic that even with all the careful environmental studies performed prior to construction of the Alaska Pipeline, an environmental disaster occurred that went well beyond the imagined scope of the environmental impact statement. The disaster occurred in part because the government too narrowly define the environment it was trying to protect; it spent enormous amounts of money to protect the pipeline and the flow of oil while never considering that flow doesn’t stop once pump stations fill the tanks of ships but that flow does not stop at the end of the pipeline. They did not look at the total system. Did the initial interviews and documentation required by the environmental impact study put too much emphasis on the actual pipeline, its construction, and the land it would traverse, and not enough on the entire project seen as a system?

Another way to avoid disaster might be revealed by Royal Dutch Shell’s training program overseen by Geoff Merell. Shell’s head of emergency response in Alaska observed 200 “spill-responders.” According to Richard Harris of National Public Radio, Shell is optimistic that it is possible to prepare for oil spills, should they happen. In an area near to where the Exxon Valdez happened, Shell’s vessels engage in preparedness and response drills. But Peter Van Tuyn, an environmental lawyer in Anchorage, is not certain; responding to oil spills in the Arctic is much more difficult than to BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when a blowout preventer failed. Shell’s ready for that too; the company has brought a well cap, just in case. Shell claims it can collect 95% of a spill, but Merrell reserves “Because the on-scene conditions can be so variable, it would be rather ridiculous of us to make any kind of performance guarantee.” To listen to a report on Shell in the Arctic, visit:

Document of Authorization

Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act
Congressional Findings, Section 202.
The Congress finds and declares that:

(a) The early development and delivery of oil and gas from Alaska’ North Slope to domestic markets is in the national interest because of growing domestic shortages and increasing dependence upon insecure foreign sources.

(b) The Department of the Interior and other Federal agencies, have, over a long period of time, conducted extensive studies of the technical aspects, and of the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the proposed trans-Alaska oil pipeline, including consideration of a trans-Canada pipeline.

(c) The earliest possible construction of a trans-Alaska oil pipeline from the North Slope of Alaska to Port Valdez in that State will make the extensive proven and potential reserves of low-sulfur oil available to domestic use and will  best serve the national interest.

(d) A supplemental pipeline to connect the North Slope with a trans-Canada pipeline may be needed later and it should be studied now, but it should not be regarded as an alternative for a trans-Alaska pipeline that does not traverse a foreign country.

From Public Law 93-153. Nov. 16, 1973 87 Stat. Also see Building the World, pp 689-709.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Corporate Citizens: How did ARCO, BP, and Humble work together on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline? Exxon entered the scene via the 1989 disaster of the Exxon Valdez. Since then, the company has sponsored educational outreach including Common Core, as well as other projects with organizations and universities. The purpose? “Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges.” What are the obligations of business in development and education?

Smart Pigs and Other Pipelines: Smart pigs, devices that clean and inspect interior of petroleum transmission pipelines, helped avoid disaster in the pipeline. Deep underground a smart pig sent up warning data; just in time, builders were able to reroute and rebuild the Atigun section. What safety measures are needed in future pipelines such as the proposed Keystone?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of following:  

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(* indicates printed in Notebook series)

Bonner, Raymond. “Mysterious Libyan Pipeline Could Be Conduit for Troops.” New York Times, December 2, 1997. See

Harris, Richard. “Ahead of Alaska Drilling, Shell Practices Cleaning Up.” National Public Radio (NPR), July 1, 2012. To listen online or obtain the transcript:

Hickel, Walter J. “The Alaskan Pipeline Is Essential.” New York Times, March 24, 1971.

Hickel, Walter J. Crisis in the Commons: The Alaska Solution. Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University, 2002.

Hickel, Walter J. Who Owns America? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Keeble, John. Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound. Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1999.

McInerney, Thomas. “The Command Technical Information System: Military Software for Macro-Engineering Projects.” In Macro-Engineering: MIT Brunel Lectures on Global Infrastructure. Edited by Frank P. Davidson, Ernst G. Frankel, and C. Lawrence Meador. Horwood Series in Engineering Science. Chichester, England: Horwood Publishing, 1977.

Rozell, Ned. Walking My Dog, Jane: From Valdez to Prudhoe Bay along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2000.Watkins, John. “Libya’s thirst for ‘fossil water’” BBC World Service, March 18, 2006. See text at


For more on ARCO, now part of British Petrolem (BP), see:

For facts about the pipeline, see:

For frequently asked question about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, including a history by the Statewide Library Electronic Doorway: Information Resources for, about, and by Alaskans, see:

For L.J. Clinton and B.J. Galloway’s “History of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System,” see: 2.pdf.

For numbers – of contractors, worker, tons of supplies, see:

For Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, see:

For Walter J. Hickel, founder of the Institute for the North, see:

For more on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and Mead Treadwell, see:

For Sarah Palin and TransCanada, see:

For TransCanada, see:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. how much did a rigger make in dollars in 1973 on the alaska pipeline ?

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