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The Alaskan Oil Pipeline: Long Past It's Expiration Date
Nothing last forever. The Trans Alaskan pipeline is no different. America was elated when it first discovered the black crude in 1968, after drilling in Prudhoe Bay to a depth of 50 stories. It was like the "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show, yee-haw! It was the largest found in the US and one of the largest in the world. The one problem was its location: under 250 miles of Artic tundra and water and ice.
So, a 800 mile long pipeline was built to carry the crude from Prudhoe Bay in the Artic Circle to Valdez, near Anchorage. It employed 70,000, took three years to complete and cost $8 billion in 1970s money. The oil started to flow in 1977. The flow did not reach a peak of two million barrels until 1988 and it accounted only 3% of the world's global amount. That is when problems began. From 1977 to 1988, the pressurized oil flowed easily because it had been compressed and trapped for millions of years, but 1988, the pressure had decreased and that reduced the amount of oil being pumped from the ground. Because less oil is flowing through the pipeline, it now spends excessive amounts of time in the pipeline and exposed to frigid temperatures that average -10F in January. If the trend continues, by 2013, the temp of the crude in the pipeline in winter will drop to 32F. This will cause oil to create ice crystals inside of the pipe and it may rupture the pipeline. This happened this year in January and caused two leaks and shut down the oil pipeline for 148 hrs. The temp dropped in the pipeline by two degrees each day and nearly caused the oil in the pipeline to harden or thicken. The ice also caused problems with accurate readings with sensors and valves. The only solution is to keep the oil warm and this will cost hundreds of millions. Unless more oil is move through, costs will rise making the pipeline a bad investment because companies are charged for each barrel they move through the pipeline. Alaska reaps 85% of its money from oil revenue.
There is no easy fix to this seemingly easy problem, Yet, only 16 billion barrels of oil have been pumped out since 1977. There still is another 10 billion there, yet oil companies have to wait 5 years for a permit to be approved, then there are environmental lawsuits. Setting pumping and drilling takes many years as well in a inhospitable climate. Many of the big oil companies are saying, it is not worth it.