While visiting Fairbanks, you have the chance to view one of the most difficult and remarkable engineering feats of modern time: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
This is one of the largest pipeline systems in the world and the only way to get crude oil from Alaska's North Slope fields to tankers waiting in Valdez. For update, click here.
Built in the 1970s after oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay (1968), the 48-inch diameter, 800-mile pipeline links Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean with the terminal at Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the Western Hemisphere. The flow from this pipeline accounts for roughly 20 percent of U.S. oil production annually.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates and maintains the pipeline, gives tours from early May through mid-September at the Fox visitor center, eight miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. Tours and presentations by their employee's club are free of charge and are offered from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Pump Station 9 on the Richardson Highway also offers tours, for which no reservations are required.
Day trips by van or by air to Prudhoe Bay are available from Fairbanks, or you can drive the rugged Dalton Highway 487 miles to Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline parallels the Dalton Highway, but access to the Prudhoe Bay oilfield complex is available only through commercial tour operators. Be aware that most rental car companies will not allow their cars to be driven on the Dalton Highway.
The pipeline is buried for less than half its length, where the ground is well-drained gravel or solid rock, and thawing is no problem. Wherever the warm oil would cause thawing of the icy soil (which would cause sinking or heaving) the pipeline, which cost about $8 billion to build, sits on top of 78,000 above-ground supports spaced 60 feet apart. The sections above ground are insulated and covered. The pipe is raised high off the ground in places to span rivers or to allow wildlife to cross under the pipe.
There were originally twelve pump stations and many valves controlling the flow of oil. Currently, two pump stations are not operating, and two are on idle status, leaving pumps 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 12 operating. The entire system is operated from the Operations Control Center located in Valdez, but can also be operated independently at each pump station.
The 48 inch diameter pipe is made of specially coated material covered with zinc anodes to ward off corrosion. More than 800 crossings of rivers and streams are made between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez.
Alyeska built the 360-mile haul road, now known as the Dalton Highway, from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay, for $150 million to supply the oil facilities on the North Slope. The pipeline bridge across the Yukon River is the only span across that river in Alaska.
The Joint Pipeline Office was organized in 1990 in answer to concerns about corrosion of the pipe and potential spills. The office is composed of nine state and federal management agencies who issue permits and monitor operation of the pipeline to encourage environmental safety.
Alyeska Pipeline Service Company is responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the pipeline. The company employs more than 2,000 people in Alaska, including Alyeska workers and sub-contractors. In 1997, Alyeska's main offices split into three business units, one of which is located in South Fairbanks. About 300 employees moved to Fairbanks from Anchorage as Alyeska made a move to position more of its workers closer to the pipeline.
Alyeska is owned by six pipeline companies: BP Pipelines (Alaska) Inc., Exxon Pipeline Co., Mobile Alaska Pipeline Co., Amerada Hess Pipeline Corp., Phillips Alaska Pipeline Corp., and Unocal Pipeline Co.