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River of Oil: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline

Jeffrey Syken

By the early 1970s, there seemed to be a perfect storm brewing that would catch most, but not all, Americans by surprise. With a ravenous, ever-growing demand for gasoline (to feed the plus 100 million fuel inefficient automobiles on America’s roads), emission controls being implemented (which would reduce gas mileage even further), nuclear power plants long delayed (increasing oil demand), natural gas supplies dwindling and a domestic oil supply that would run out by the year 1995 (given the rate of domestic consumption), something had to give. Of course, there was plenty of coal to be had, but there were extraction and air pollution issues to deal with, then and now.

To the oil men of America, the answer to the problem was to be found in the far north, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in a place called Prudhoe Bay. For a decade, British Petroleum (BP) had been drilling in the desolate, frozen desert that was the North Slope of Alaska. Just as they were about to give up, in the early spring of 1968 a rival – Atlantic Richfield, struck the mother lode. Turns out BP was simply drilling in the wrong place and soon after ARCO’s discovery, BP struck pay dirt as well with their own well. Though it would not solve America’s addiction to oil, the great find (still the largest oil field in North America) would help balance the supply-demand equation and lessen America’s dependence on foreign imports.

The problem with Prudhoe Bay oil was two-fold: how to get it to market and how to appease the environmentalists who were sounding the alarm. For the former, ideas ranged from giant tanker planes to ice-breaking super tankers. Even Y.T. Lin – the great engineer, got in on the act with his Integrated Pipeline Transportation (IPT) system (basically, a land version of his Bering Strait bridge proposal – only many fold longer). In the end, a pipeline made the most sense. As for the latter, the debate shifted in the oil mens’ favor when the effects of the Arab Oil Embargo were being felt in the fall of 1973. As for the environmentalists, the law would make both the design and construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) the test case for the new Federally mandated environmental protection laws. Thus, the 800-mile-long pipeline would be built and operated with sound engineering, minimally disruptive construction practices and, in operation, safeguards to protect the fragile habitats it passed through. Ultimately, TAPS would make “The Great Land” even greater.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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