"On This Day" In Engineering History Blog

"On This Day" In Engineering History

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June 20, 1977 – Oil Flows Through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

Posted June 20, 2008 12:05 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, oil first flowed through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), an 800-mile long conduit that moves petroleum from the North Slope of Alaska to Valdez, the state's northern-most ice-free port. Built at a cost of $8 billion (USD), the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed in just 3 years and 2 months. Over the life of the project, some 70,000 workers living in 29 construction camps built six sections of pipeline with 48-in.-diameter steel pipe. They dug 8-foot deep by 8-feet wide ditches, built 14 temporary airfields, made over 100,000 welds, and received approximately 3-million tons of material - including 73 million cubic yards of gravel. The largest piece shipped during TAPS construction was a floating tanker berth that weighed 3,250 tons.

Although TAPS construction did not start until April 29, 1974, the story of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System began in March 1968, when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay. After analyzing various transport options, including ice-breaking tanker ships and giant tanker airplanes, Alaska's oil companies determined that a hot-oil pipeline was the most cost-effective way to move oil from fields on the North Slope to the Port of Valdez. From there, crude oil could be shipped to refineries in the "Lower 48", as Alaskans call the 48 contiguous states in the U.S. In 1969, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company applied for a right-of-way to build the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System on federal lands.

Thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., the political landscape for an Alaskan pipeline seemed rocky. In 1966, the Secretary of the Interior had banned all development on the state's federally-owned lands. Three years later, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a statute which requires federal agencies to submit an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to any major action. Initially, environmental groups used NEPA to block the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS); however, when a new Secretary of the Interior declared TAPS to be in the national interest, the injunction was lifted. The resolution of Native American land claims and the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974 also turned the tide. On November 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act into law after a close vote in Congress.

In the winter of 1974, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company won a federal right-of-way to build the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS). Construction on the pipeline's Haul Road began in May and ended by late September. The following spring, crews laid the first of 800 miles of steel pipe. Although typical pipeline construction involves burying the piping, Alaska's permafrost posed special challenges. To keep the permafrost from melting, approximately half of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline was elevated above ground. Crossing 3 mountain ranges and over 800 rivers and streams posed many additional challenges. Finally, on May 31, 1977, the last pipeline weld was completed. Less than a month later, on June 20, 1977, the first oil flowed from Pump Station 1 on its eight-day journey to reach Valdez.




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