Pipeline at 40: What does the future hold?

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The numbers that flow from the first 40 years of the Trans Alaska Pipeline are Alaska-sized in nature.

- Alyeska Pipeline says more than 17-billion barrels of oil have flowed since the pipeline began operations, filling the equivalent of 22-thousand tanker loads.
- A study done by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at UAA, estimated that the pipeline boosted Alaska’s economic activity by 50 percent.
- The Alaska Department of Revenue estimates that $140-billion dollars in tax revenue has been generated by North Slope crude oil, during the pipeline’s first 40 years.

The company that runs the pipeline is confident about the future.

When asked for his prediction, Rod Hanson, senior vice president for operations and maintenance replied with a laugh, “Hashtag 40 more? I think that TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System) can operate indefinitely. I think the future holds challenging times with lower throughputs, but someday I hope to see that flatten off.”

That optimism comes from a recent increase in the amount of oil flowing through the pipeline, referred to as "throughput."

The peak flow amount was reached in 2002, with 2-million barrels a day. But that number has been on a steady decline, ever since. However, in 2016, the flow amount hit almost 528-thousand barrels per day, an increase of almost 2 percent from the previous year, and the first increase in pipeline daily throughput, since 2002.

New oil discoveries on the North Slope are fueling hope for the pipeline’s future.

“I think we could go for another 40 years. At least another 40 years, with the pipeline, with the reserves that do have on the North Slope,” said Carl Portman of the Resource Development Council. “They estimate that with offshore areas and on-shore areas, there could be as much as 40 to 50 billion barrels of oil remaining in place, in the Alaska arctic.”

Environmentalists, who generally praise the pipeline’s safety record during its first 40 years, have concerns about overconfidence moving forward.

“In terms of complacency, you can go a certain number of years and people will say, ' What's the big deal? We haven't had any incidents. Why should we worry about it?'" said Kristin Carpenter, executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project. "And that is complacency in a nutshell. You know, we should worry about it, because the systems are ageing.”

Groups that serve as watchdogs for the pipeline point to the system’s darkest hours - the Exxon Valdez oil spill - as a warning, about the potential for disaster.

“It's really important that we maintain our levels of safety, and not let complacency creep back into the system,” said Brooke Taylor, spokesperson for the Prince William Sound Citizens’ Advisory Council. “We know complacency was a huge factor that lead to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

Alyeska Pipeline says combating complacency through training, and placing safety as the top priority, is a never-ending part of the company culture.

“Our approach to work is really one of never really relying on 'We've always done it this way,'" said Rod Hanson, senior vice president for operations and maintenance.

Betsy Haines, Alyeska Pipeline’s senior engineering director, said, “Certainly Exxon Valdez was not our proudest moment, but I think, in every case, we've learned. When we investigate, we apply the learnings. We apply them forward. We don't make the same mistake twice.”

Haines is also confident that company engineers can overcome technical problems caused by lower oil flow, such as more wax build-up and ice formation.

For the people who operate the Trans Alaska Pipeline today, and those who built it more than 40 years ago, pride flows along with the oil.

Scott Harter, who signed on as a construction worker back in the 1970s, said, “I'm glad it's still running at 40 years. I hope it's got another 40 years left in it.”

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