By: Cassidy Mullins
Summary: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is an oil transportation system which spans over 800 miles over Alaskan wilderness and carries on average 1.8 million gallons of crude oil every day. Construction began in 1975, and finished in 1977. The pipeline cost $8 billion, and 20,000 people worked on it daily. Seven oil companies make up a group called the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, who paid for the pipeline. It was built in part as a response to the 1973 oil crisis, which caused a spike in oil prices in the US. Since the Trans Alaska Pipeline was completed, the state government of Alaska has relied on taxes paid by oil producers. Alaska is now the most tax-free state due to being able to cut out personal income tax as a result of taxing oil companies. There are over 800 rivers and streams crossing the pipeline, some of which are used for fishing and water collection. There is a lot of opposition to the pipeline, mainly coming from conservationists and Alaska Natives. The pipeline crosses Native land, but does not benefit them directly. The pipeline also impacts caribou herds, and blocks migration routes, making caribou herds smaller. There have been crossing points built into the pipeline to limit the effects. Natives also rely on caribou for food, as well as whales that may be scared away by the pipeline. The pipeline has been damaged by natural disasters, human error, as well as sabotages. In March of 1989, an oil tanker helping to transport oil spilled between 260,000 to 750,000 of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Some of that oil still remains to this day. While this spill doesn’t directly involve the pipeline, it is the most famous case of oil spills in Alaska. The most recent pipeline leak occurred in April 2020, where fifty thousand gallons gallons of oily water had to be recovered to prevent damage to wildlife.
Why we should care? In 2010, it was estimated that the pipeline would be working through at least 2032. Alaska is legally required to remove all traces of the pipeline once it is shut down, but the damage has already been done to the environment.
Anchorage Daily News ran an opinion piece in March about how a large problem facing Alaska's economy is their declining oil industry. This was written at a time where many were worried about an economic collapse due to COVID. People staying home leads to less oil being used, and Alaska isn't sure when, or if, a full recovery will be made. This could lead to an earlier shut down of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline than what is currently expected. Closing the pipeline down voluntarily, rather than when it is no longer functional, will likely lead to less oil spills as the pipe corrodes. While there is no evidence right now of the pipeline shutting down, it is likely that in the future a decision will have to be made if it is no longer profitable.
Science in Action.
Dr. Erin Pulster is a Scientific Researcher at the University of South Florida, College of Marine Science.
While not directly researching the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Dr. Pulster has recently concluded a study on long-term effects of an oil spill on marine life. After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, researchers from University of South Florida (USF) began a study to determine how badly the spill affected marine life. They found that there was a 50 to 80 percent population decrease in deep water fish near the rig site. There has been a new study started by USF to track fish eggs and understand how spawning sites may have been impacted throughout various species. The results of these studies could be beneficial to better understand how past oil spills (such as the Prince William Sound Exxon Valdez spill) and possible future spills will affect the Alaskan environment.