GUEST COMMENTARY: An engineering icon and economic engine turns 40

  • The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System at Milepost 0 on the North Slope. After 40 years and more than 17 billion barrels of oil, recent production increases and new discoveries have given fresh optimism the pipeline can run for another 40. (Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal)

On June 20, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System reaches a significant milestone: 40 years of operations.

TAPS stands as one of the world’s engineering marvels and among Alaska’s most popular landmarks. It’s a symbol of sustained operational excellence, environmental stewardship, community and business partnerships, innovation, integrity, and people who embody Alaska true grit.

TAPS remains at the heart of Alaska’s economic health; throughput from North Slope producers since TAPS startup now exceeds 17.5 billion barrels, and has generated $168 billion in cumulative deposits to the state’s general fund. Oil flow down TAPS helps fuel Alaska government and businesses, communities, schools and nonprofit organizations, and creates jobs and opportunities for thousands of Alaskans.

From the onset, TAPS’ architects pondered daunting obstacles: Constructing an 800-mile pipeline across some of the world’s most challenging, unforgiving and unique wilderness.

Navigating a path to approval lined with mammoth political, environmental and logistical hurdles. Even as America starved for domestic energy resources, many doubted that this bold, one-of-a-kind pipeline would even be built. Some fiercely opposed it.

But the TAPS owner companies and many Alaska leaders saw the potential transformative value of TAPS for Alaska and Alaskans. They advocated, negotiated, fought and gained approval for TAPS construction.

Then 70,000 men and women raced north to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime project. In October 1975, the workforce peaked at more than 28,000. They built TAPS and the Dalton Highway, transformed Prudhoe Bay into an energy and economic hub, and created a major marine terminal in Valdez, turning it into one of Alaska’s leading ports.

The mantra was, “They didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”

They got it done – in just over three years.

Early predictions suggested TAPS wouldn’t reach 20 years of operation, much less 40. But employees’ dedication, system modernization, North Slope production that exceeded expectations, and ongoing application of lessons learned have sustained TAPS, as has what we at Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the pipeline operator, call TAPS Pride.

It’s a sense of ownership held by those connected to the pipeline — Alyeska employees, contractors, family, friends and tens of thousands of people who have contributed to the TAPS legacy.

Upon seeing TAPS, visitors are awed. More than half of the pipeline runs above ground. That engineering decision, due to seismic and permafrost issues, coupled with spectacular Alaska backdrops, make TAPS one of the world’s most photographed pipelines.

It is fascinating to talk to visitors at the TAPS viewing site in Fox, or to read social media posts about personal TAPS experiences. The most interesting tales come from TAPS workers. A quarter of the current Alyeska workforce of around 800 has been with the company for more than 20 years; some were here at startup.

Several family members are third-generation employees. More than 90 percent of the diverse Alyeska workforce lives in Alaska; more than 20 percent are Alaska Native; and 70 percent of TAPS contractor companies are based in Alaska. Those Alaska roots are a foundation of TAPS pride and operational excellence.

The pride extends to the communities where our personnel live and work. From 1978-2016, Alyeska purchased more than $25 billion in goods and services and paid $32 million in non-property taxes and fees, in addition to taxes paid by the TAPS owners.

Over that same time, the company contributed $41 million in charitable contributions and $7 million in scholarships. Since 2001, Alyeska staff personally donated more than $1 million and more than 24,000 volunteer hours.

Like any 40-year run, there have been performance highs and lows. Throughput numbers have certainly swung. At peak flow in 1988, 11 pump stations helped move 2.1 million barrels of oil a day; daily averages dropped just about every year since.

In 2016, oil throughput, now moved by only four pump stations, was 517,868 barrels a day. It marked the first year of a throughput increase since 2002, and 2017 numbers so far are running above 2016.

Those upticks feed our 40th year of operations with fresh enthusiasm and optimism. More oil through TAPS is the path to smoother, more reliable and efficient operations, and more long-term benefits for Alaskans. Recent reports of discoveries and increased production on the North Slope is great news.

While there has been a lot of change on TAPS over 40 years, one unwavering constant remains: the commitment of the people who work on TAPS today to provide safe, reliable, operational excellence, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, resilient amid all of Alaska’s extreme geography and weather.

This should give us all — Alyeska personnel, TAPS contractors, Alaskans, the nation — a vision of another potential TAPS milestone: 40 more years of successful operations across Alaska.

Admiral Tom Barrett, U.S. Coast Guard (ret.), has been president of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. since 2011. Read stories or share your own at Alyeska’s 40th anniversary website: www.alyeska-pipe.com/NewsCenter/AnniversaryStories.

Updated: 
06/20/2017 - 9:31am

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