Four decades ago the revolutionary Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) became operational. Today, the pipeline is still playing a pivotal role in Alaska’s economy. Despite the fact that many doubted the plausibility of such a project when it was first proposed, TAPS was completed June 20, 1977. The pipeline is among the world’s largest and has had a critical role in cementing Alaska’s status as an energy powerhouse.
The 800 mile long pipeline, owned by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, cuts through all types of terrain, navigating permafrost, three mountain ranges, and 34 rivers on its route from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It symbolized Alaskan grit for a generation and drew engineers, welders, and construction workers from across the United States to Alaska to work on the project. Many who came to work on TAPS stayed in Alaska permanently.
During its 40 years of operation the pipeline has moved 17.5 billion barrels of Alaskan crude, peaking at 2.1 million barrels per day in 1988. These days it moves only 500,000 barrels, a worrying number to many Alaskans that has already led Alyeska to reduce the number of pumping stations from 11 to four.
This decline has mirrored the stagnation in overall Alaskan oil production as government restrictions on exploration and development have limited drilling to certain areas. Despite this, the pipeline remains a vital mode of transporting oil for producers on the North Slope. Alaskans are incredibly proud of TAPS, and it continues to be an enduring and photogenic symbol of Alaskan grit. due to the striking territory it runs through and the fact that much of the steel pipeline is above ground to avoid damage from shifting permafrost.
Alyeska hopes that steps by the Trump Administration will soon have millions of gallons of newly discovered Arctic oil flowing through the pipeline, which is still maintained by Alyeska’s 800 strong 95-percent-Alaskan workforce.
TAPS was among the earliest and most ambitious major Arctic infrastructure projects ever attempted, bringing with it tens of thousands of new workers, billions of dollars in investment. The pipeline also eventually led to more transportation improvements, including roads like the Dalton Highway, which traverses across many of Alaska’s most remote regions and facilities that transformed Valdez into a major port.
Already, oil throughput numbers are up for 2017, and 2016 saw the first increase in more than a decade. Alyeska is optimistic that flow numbers will not drop below the minimum of 300,000 barrels a day and the opening of new areas for exploration hints that it may soon be time to reopen pumping stations and expand if Alaska enters a new energy boom. The Administration’s review of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leasing plan will take some time to generate progress, but in the meantime TAPS will celebrate its milestone birthday by continuing to safely transport Alaska’s energy resources.