Pipe Dreams: From Trans-Alaska to Keystone XL, a Doomed Love Affair

Thirty-five years ago, a national recession and high fuel prices led to the opening of the massive, controversial Trans-Alaska Pipeline System—and a host of problems and pollution that came with it. Sound familiar?

Jun 26, 2012
Outside Magazine
Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

Trans-Alaska Pipeline System    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The article originally appeared on OnEarth.

“You’re entering at your own risk,” Don Mann said, then laughed. We were climbing a passage chain-sawed through downed trees and splintered timbers ringing the broken and slanted wreckage of his home. We balanced on blocks of blue Styrofoam insulation and awkwardly perched palettes, then scrambled onto the corrugated roof of his porch—a perfect vantage back upriver.

On May 4, 2009, unprecedented flooding along the Yukon River broke thick surface ice into massive floes, pushing Don’s house off its foundation—along with most other homes in Eagle, Alaska—and carrying everything nearly 100 yards into the trees. Even by the time I was there three weeks later, giant blocks of ice—two and three times the size of the cars and trucks they had flattened in their path—stretched from where we stood all the way to the riverbank. At the corner of the roof, Don had set up a camouflage camp chair. He sat there sometimes, he said, and looked out at the devastation. Most times, though, he was inside, salvaging what he could.

Don and his wife Judy were relative newcomers to Eagle, but they had been dreaming of returning to the state for close to four decades. “I come to Alaska in ’67,” Don told me. “We drove the Alcan. That was 1,158 miles of gravel road at that time.” He worked on Cook Inlet as a crane superintendent on offshore platform Bruce. After 26 months, he moved to the newly begun oil drilling operation on Prudhoe Bay. He slept for two weeks on a cot in the Arctic Inn in a nook next to the bathrooms when he first arrived, working 12 on, 12 off, drilling piling holes to build the pads to put the new rigs on. Don is a high plains good old boy through and through, but he took to life in Alaska—the hard work and high pay, the can-do spirit and anything-goes attitude.

And, as the summer of 1969 arrived, the work seemed like it would last forever. More than 800 miles of 48-inch pipe was arriving from Japan for the proposed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, called “TAPS.” The 11 mammoth pumps to propel the crude were on order. The heavy equipment to dig a trench and accompanying road all the way from Prudhoe to Valdez was being moved into place. Only at the very last minute was an application filed with the Interior Department for a permit. Max C. Brewer, with the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory at Barrow, who the Fairbanks News-Miner called “probably America’s ranking authority on the Arctic,” objected to the plan, arguing that the heated oil passing through the pipeline would melt the underlying permafrost—causing damage to the surrounding tundra and, in all likelihood, causing ruptures in places where the ground shifted. He proposed an above-ground plan and called for more study.

But, even before the Interior Department could rule, several environmental groups filed suit under the newly implemented National Environmental Policy Act, demanding a study of alternative routes and an objective environmental impact statement. The project was tied up in legal difficulties for years—and served as a blueprint for future generations of environmentalists seeking to slow down efforts to ram through drilling and pipeline-building projects. (Anti-pipeline Nebraskans, for example, have successfully staved off Keystone XL for a year, using these exact NEPA requirements.) “They had the pipe in Valdez to build the pipeline, but they wouldn’t let them build it,” Don said, “so they shut down the drilling.” He and Judy went back to Oklahoma and raised their three children and two more, always with an eye toward returning. But years turned into decades, and it wasn’t until Don retired from a career spent in construction and oil drilling in Oklahoma that they finally made the move. “I always wanted to come back to Alaska,” he told me.


When I was still in my early twenties—at loose ends but with a little money saved up—I loaded up my SUV and headed north with the simple objective of not stopping until I reached the Arctic Ocean. I visited fishing villages still dependent on the Yukon River for subsistence, mining camps where men still scrabbled in sand for flecks of gold, and I saw the Porcupine caribou herd on its great migration to its calving ground in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As I started a deep descent on the “haul road,” the gravel track constructed to provide access for repairing leaks on the pipeline and trucking heavy equipment to the drilling platforms at Prudhoe Bay, I blew both rear tires on my truck. I fishtailed side to side all the way down the scree slope, managing somehow not to roll over, and then limped the car off the road to the edge of the tundra—my tires in shreds, 200 miles short of the ocean. But I jacked the truck up, unchained the two spares I’d kept in reserve on the overhead rack, and tightened the lugs while big rigs spit gravel and dust as they passed. And, then, in the spirit of the place, I drove on.

By the time I reached Deadhorse, the drilling village of prefab trailers skidded onto gravel pads, I felt like I’d earned my stripes. But two miles short of the ocean, I discovered that access to Prudhoe Bay is restricted to oilfield workers; the only public access was through specially permitted tour groups. So my adventure concluded by being ushered into a long passenger van and shuttled to a patch of beach, where we could all dip our toes into the icy water in the shadow of BP’s towering oil rig. As we drove back toward the guard booth, an Arctic fox loped across the road and slid under the chain-link fence. I was riding shotgun, so I had a much better view than the neck-craning Germans in the back, struggling to get off a few shutter clicks through the tinted windows. I watched the fox hop over a pile of narrow gauge pipe and disappear. The driver told me I should count myself lucky. They hardly ever saw Arctic foxes in the area anymore.

That was my first inkling of just what had been lost when Congress finally gave in to public outcry over fuel prices after OPEC announced its embargo in October 1973, touching off the oil crisis. Then, as now, pressure for the project was wrapped up in politics. Nixon was weeks from protesting that he wasn’t a crook, and Congress didn’t want to lose the political upper hand. On November 12, 1973, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act giving the go-ahead for construction of the pipeline and haul road—environmental impact be damned—sailed through Congress. (Out of 535 members of both houses, fewer than 20 had the guts to vote against it.) By January, construction on the Dalton Highway was underway, and the first pipe was laid by March 1974.

For the next three years, tens of thousands of workers flocked to Alaska—lured by top-dollar jobs in the midst of a recession—and the region experienced the greatest economic boom (and moral backslide) since the Klondike and Nome gold strikes. By the time the pipeline was opened on June 20, 1977—35 years ago—more than $8 billion had been spent, 32 lives lost, and the damage to the environment was left intentionally ambiguous. But so long as gas prices remained low and American incomes were bolstered, the costs were deemed acceptable.

Barely a year later, thousands of workers at the nationalized oil refineries in Iran went on strike, setting the wheels in motion for what would become the next energy crisis.

RECENTLY, TO MARK THE 35th anniversary of TAPS, the Juneau Empire ran an editorial by Lisa Murkowski—a U.S. Senator from Alaska since 2002 who took over the post from her father, Frank, who had held the seat since 1981, shortly after the pipeline’s completion. Not surprisingly, Murkowski defended the pipeline era in Alaska. “TAPS has delivered more than 16.6 billion barrels of oil,” she writes. “For Alaskans, that translates into more than $171 billion in revenues to the state treasury.” But the pipeline has provided more than just tax dollars. She cites numbers from the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, which found that “three out of every 10 jobs in Alaska can ultimately be attributed to TAPS.” Alaska’s personal income tax rate went from 14.5 percent before the pipeline to zero since 1980, while the state’s gross product and earned personal income both have increased five-fold.

Money has flowed so freely that the state established the Alaska Permanent Fund and the Alaska Resource Rebate, paying every resident an annual dividend on state-invested funds ceded by oil interests. (This year the payout is expected to top $2,000.) Three years ago, when I visited Eagle after the devastating breakup of the Yukon River that spring, I wrote: “Even households in the remotest areas, places where people think of themselves as outside state rule, receive state assistance and pay into an economy built on the very industry that is destroying the natural world they love and depend upon. For a generation, Alaskans have argued that their numbers are too small, the wilderness too wide for their drilling to have a lasting effect. But the real threat comes from the people they supply, people who may never see Alaska but whose carbon emissions are wreaking havoc at the poles.” Yet, in the years since, our national obsession with drilling and building pipelines (in the form of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline and the Enbridge complex) has only grown—and Murkowski wants to see that expansion in Alaska as well.

“TAPS once carried nearly two million barrels of oil a day from the North Slope to the port of Valdez,” she writes, “but is now down to almost a quarter of that. Today, Alaska is no longer America’s second-largest producer of oil, having been surpassed by North Dakota. And North Slope production continues to decline by seven percent annually. Without new oil production, throughput in the pipeline could fall enough to threaten its future viability. Shutting down the pipeline would mean closing up shop on the North Slope. Alaska’s oil—like its massive natural gas reserves today—would be stranded with no way to market, leaving the state scrambling to replace the 85 percent of its annual revenue that today comes from oil.”

Murkowski sees the future in the “federally owned lands and waters to the east, west and north of Prudhoe Bay” but opines that “access has been slowed by an administration more interested in designating new wilderness than shoring up Alaska’s economy.” But the numbers suggest just the opposite. A recent Department of Energy report showed that crude oil production in the United States has reached 5.88 million barrels per day, the most since 1998. Importation of foreign oil is in such steep decline that last year U.S. refiners exported 117 million gallons of petroleum products per day—nearly triple what they sold a decade ago. In fact, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are now America’s three top exports. By some estimates, growth in fossil fuel production has produced 20 percent of jobs created since the start of the recession. But it’s not enough, Murkowski insists. “We must finally gain access to our resources in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. And we must continue our battle to win approval for production from the coastal plain of ANWR.”

But her view doesn’t account for the hidden costs of our dependency on oil.

ON THAT NIGHT IN May 2009, as the floodwaters rose around his home—and his phone went dead and the electricity cut out—Don Mann and his son Quincy set to knocking the pins out of the hinges of all the interior doors, stacking them up and trying to figure out a way they could be rigged into a raft. They gathered gallon jugs and emptied tubs—anything that might help buoy them when the water came in. This is the Alaska way: a fierce defiance in the face of impossible odds. But as Don stood at the window, watching the cab of his truck disappear under water, and the giant floes came pushing through the dense spruce, there was no denying the unstoppable power of the river. “I watched the trees crush and pop and snap and bend over and break,” Don told me. Some of the floes were so big and flat that he wondered if they might be able to ride one to safety.

As I reported at the time, the Yukon Department of Environment has noted a trend toward earlier and earlier spring breakups on the Yukon near Dawson City in Canada, more than 100 miles upriver but south of Eagle. Spring breakups, on average, are six days earlier—and fall freeze-ups six days later—than they were just 100 years ago. Erratic temperatures in the autumn can thaw and re-freeze river ice, sometimes multiple times, before final freeze-up; this makes for thicker river ice. (I heard from many Alaskans that they could remember a time when you could ride snow machines up and down the Yukon, but now the frozen river is usually too rough to traverse.) And when warm temperatures arrive in the spring, carrying swift runoff from mountain snows, the results can sometimes be violent—as they were during the historic flooding three years ago.

When Don Mann stepped out onto the porch of his home to get a better look at the encroaching ice floes, he found his son Travis on his knees.

“What are you doing?” Don asked.

“I thought this was the time to get down and pray,” Travis said.

“But why are you on your knees?” Don demanded.

Travis had left his wife and four children back home in Oklahoma. “I want to be sure I’m heard,” he said.

Travis’s prayers were answered. Two of Don’s neighbors soon came through the woods in a pair of canoes. They paddled up to the roof of the porch and everyone climbed in—everyone but Don. Don is a big, barrel-bodied man, and when he tried to get in, the canoe wobbled and threatened to capsize. He hopped back onto the roof and ordered his family to safety; he would wait until one of the canoes could return for him. He climbed upstairs to look out the window to watch the ice piling up, pale and ghostly in the half-moon light.

Eventually, a canoe returned for him—and Don rebuilt his dream home and is back again living in Eagle along the banks of the Yukon River. But I fear that if we don’t change our habits as consumers of fossil fuels (and I’m well aware that I traveled first to Alaska in a gas-powered SUV and have since returned in a wide-bodied plane burning barrels of jet fuel) and if Alaska’s leadership does not seek other economic models for sustaining their state and begin investing in clean energy, then the Yukon River breakup of 2009 might just be the first of many violent, deadly, and costly floods. As the Trans-Alaska Pipeline turns 35, I hope it might serve as an occasion not only to celebrate the riches oil has brought to Alaskans but also as an opportunity to commit to investing some of that prosperity into the future health and happiness of Alaskans—and all Americans, all people of the world—who might wish to partake of the state’s unmatched beauty and biodiversity.

Filed To: Politics, Science, Nature

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