The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built in 1977 and is one of the world’s largest pipeline systems. The pipeline is a feat of engineering that spans 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez. Over the last 39 years, TAPS has excelled in its sole purpose to “provide safe, environmentally responsible, reliable, and cost-effective oil transportation from the North Slope of Alaska.” Production across Alaska’s North Slope can ensure decades more of safe transport of much needed domestic energy.
TAPS is an structural marvel with a long success record, despite hyperbolic activist fears that arose during its initial construction. It is a vital component of Alaska’s economy and a pillar of America’s energy infrastructure. At its peak, the pipeline transported 2.1 million barrels a day in 1988. In 2011, TAPS moved an average of 600,000 barrels per day. Unfortunately, today TAPS flow rate stands at a quarter of its capability.
In the last few years, the pipeline has seen a large decline in daily oil transportation rates. This continued decline is a threat to the pipeline’s long-term viability, due to low flow implications. When less oil flows through TAPS, the chances of wax buildup increase; leading to potential problems in efficiency and safety controls. The drop in oil being transported also makes it more expensive to keep the pipeline warm causing the transit time to increase. At full capacity, it took a mere four days for the oil to reach Valdez from Prudhoe Bay, but due to throughput declines, the trip averages about 15 days now. Put simply, without more oil entering TAPS, this critical piece of Arctic infrastructure will cease to exist.
The pipeline is essential to the people of Alaska, but it also plays a major role in state economies across America. In California, as we have noted before, a decrease in the volume of oil in TAPS directly correlates to an increase in refinery imports, much of it from overseas. There has not been a decrease in the energy needs across America, and less oil from Alaska spurs more oil tankers from overseas to make up the difference. The entire nation suffers when the Lower 48 does not have ready access to Alaska’s oil resources.
Alyeska Pipeline operates TAPS and its executives discussed what conditions would force it to reevaluate the pipeline and expressed fears about a future without greater North Slope development. Alyeska President Thomas Barrett said that a drop below 300,000 barrels per day would require a “fundamental” change in the pipe’s operations.
In order to bring TAPS transportation numbers back up to healthy levels, we need Arctic development to resume in earnest. Due to the long lead time required to begin production in the American Arctic, this process needs to begin now. The Administration and its regulators should allow Arctic operators to do their job. Sen. Murkowski expressed the urgency of the situation last year when she stated:
“The actions of this administration seem destined to shut down our trans-Alaska pipeline, weaken our economy, forcing our state to make steep budget cuts and really violating the promises that were made to us at statehood”
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is an incredible resource to America’s energy supply, and we should not ignore the realities at hand. Alaska’s North Slope has the resource potential that could solve TAPS decline in throughput. Energy producers and communities in the surrounding region should be given the opportunity to develop these massive Arctic energy resources.