FLOOR SPEECH: 40th Anniversary of Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

As prepared, not delivered.

[Mr./Madam] President, I’ve come to the floor this afternoon to mark the 40th anniversary of the first oil moving through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System—an 800-mile long engineering marvel that runs from the North Slope of Alaska to tidewater in Valdez. 

I will abbreviate the history, out of necessity, but want to start the story of our pipeline in the late 1960s.  Believe it or not, this was a fairly bleak moment for oil exploration in Alaska.  Despite great promise, many companies had given up on exploration on our North Slope.  By some accounts, at least 14 dry holes were drilled before ARCO and Humble Oil Company decided to sink one last well.  An executive from ARCO described it as “more of a decision not to cancel a well already scheduled than to go ahead.”  But that well—Prudhoe Bay State Number 1—would prove to be a game-changer for our young state.

We had discovered oil on the North Slope—and an awful lot of it.  We quickly learned that Prudhoe Bay would be one of the largest oil fields in global history, and by far the largest ever discovered in the United States.  Early estimates suggested as much as nine billion barrels of oil could be recovered from it.  But Prudhoe Bay was also located in a barren, inhospitable area—far away from the population centers of the Lower 48—so many challenges needed to be overcome before production could begin.

One of the most pressing questions was how to transport the oil to market.  And Dan Yergin, writing in his book The Prize, did a wonderful job of describing the choices that emerged:     

“Icebreaker tankers that would travel through the frozen Arctic seas to the Atlantic were seriously considered.  Other suggestions included a monorail or fleet of trucks in permanent circulation on an eight-lane highway across Alaska (until it was calculated that it would require most of the trucks in America).  A prominent nuclear physicist recommended a fleet of nuclear-powered submarine tankers that would travel under the polar ice cap to a deepwater port in Greenland—the port to be created, in turn, by a nuclear explosion.  Boeing and Lockheed explored the idea of jumbo jet oil tankers.”

After significant study and debate, thankfully none of those options, but instead an oil pipeline, emerged as the best way to transport Alaska’s oil.  And while two routes were considered – one overland, running across Canada – an all-Alaska route was ultimately chosen as the best way to go. 

Even then, pipeline construction could not begin right away.  Serious debates over issues like taxes and tariffs and pipeline ownership consumed Alaska’s Legislature for years.  The land claims of Alaska Natives needed to be settled, which occurred in landmark legislation passed in 1971.  And then, in 1973, Congress took up the Trans Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act.

As part of that debate, Alaska’s Senators offered an amendment to deem the Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline to be sufficient, and to shield it from what could have been decades of litigation by its opponents.  The vote was as close as it could be, and the Senate was deadlocked, 49 to 49, until Vice President Spiro Agnew cast the deciding vote in Alaska’s favor. 

Whenever I see the bust of Vice President Agnew here in the Capitol, that’s what I think of—that tie-breaking vote.

The pipeline bill went on to pass the Senate on a strong bipartisan basis.  And not long after, then-President Richard Nixon signed it into law.  It was tremendous news for Alaska: we would be allowed to go forward. 

Construction of the pipeline was a monumental undertaking that occurred at lightning speed.  In April 1974, construction of our 360-mile haul road, now called the Dalton Highway, began.  And it was finished just 154 days later. 

The pipeline itself was the largest privately funded infrastructure project ever undertaken in America, at the time.  Its total cost came to about $8 billion.  In October 1975, about 28,000 people were working to make it a reality.  And it was completed in 1977, just three years and two months after construction began—even ten days ahead of schedule, according to one estimate.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, or TAPS as Alaskans call it, is truly impressive.  It runs 800 miles, from the North Slope of Alaska to an ice-free port in Valdez.  Along the way, it crosses three mountain ranges, including Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, with an elevation of 4,800 feet, and reaches a grade of 55 degrees at one point in the Chugach Range.  It crosses a major fault line, more than 600 streams and rivers, and more than 400 miles of it are elevated above the ground.

I was in Fairbanks when the pipeline began—just a teenager, a high school student.  The pipeline drew thousands of new workers to our state, expanding our population.  I saw people wearing cowboy boots for the first time, and remember thinking—that makes no sense for Fairbanks, where it’s cold, and icy, and slippery in the winter. 

You couldn’t find a hotel room.  You couldn’t find a rental car.  It was hard for grocery stores to keep the shelves stocked in many towns, but we also saw major investment in our communities.  We saw big projects like the Sullivan Arena and Performing Arts Center in Anchorage.  There are some wild tales, as you might imagine, but there are also many others that we can tell here. 

There is no question that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline has had a profoundly positive impact on Alaska.  This is not just our pipeline; it is our economic lifeline.  Over the course of 40 years, TAPS has become the veritable backbone of our state’s economy.   

It has helped us create jobs—to the point where our oil and gas industry either employs, or supports, fully one-third of the Alaskan workforce.   

It has generated tremendous revenues for our state—some $168 billion at last count, which have been used for everything from roads, to schools, to essential services.

TAPS allowed us to create our Permanent Fund, which we have used to convert the revenues from a non-renewable resource, oil, into something that will make an enduring contribution to the growth and prosperity of our future generations.    

Our pipeline has also allowed us to keep our tax burdens low, which is critical in a state where the cost of living is high.  Alaska has one of the lowest tax burdens of any state, and it is thanks to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.  As the economist Scott Goldsmith has noted, the revenues from TAPS have also kept taxes on other industries, like fishing and tourism, much lower than they would otherwise be.  

The scale of this is hard to imagine.  As Dr. Terrence Cole, a history professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, put it in 2004: “Prudhoe Bay oil was worth more than everything that has been dug out, cut down, caught, or killed in Alaska since the beginning of time.  The discovery of the Prudhoe Bay oil field in the late 1960s fulfilled even the most optimistic dreams for statehood.”

From day one, Alaska’s pipeline has also strengthened the energy security of our nation.  Remember, TAPS began operating in the wake of the first Arab Oil Embargo.  It helped tide us over during the 1979 oil crisis.  It has insulated us from OPEC and lessened our dependence on nations who do not share our interests.  It has provided reliable and affordable energy needed by millions of Americans all up and down the West Coast.

It’s hard to imagine Alaska without the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  It’s hard to imagine the consequences that America would have faced without the 17.5 billion barrels of oil it has now safely carried to market.  And it is no exaggeration to say that while we built a pipeline, that pipeline has helped us build our state. 

Today, however, as we mark the 40th anniversary of TAPS, we can also take stock of the challenges it faces.  Many are a direct result of the decisions made, or not made, in this very chamber.  You see, while our pipeline once carried 2.1 million barrels of oil per day, accounting for a full quarter of America’s supply, today that has been crimped down to just over 500,000 barrels a day.  

This is not due to a lack of resources, but instead, our lack of access to them.  Alaska has never lacked for energy—just permission to produce it, despite the promises made to us at statehood.  According to the federal Energy Information Administration, we have at least 36.9 billion barrels of oil.  That’s enough to produce one million barrels a day for the next 100 years. 

We have prolific potential in our National Petroleum Reserve, which was specifically set aside for oil production.  We have world-class resources in our offshore areas, in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in our Arctic Outer Continental Shelf.  And we have what is believed to be North America’s largest untapped conventional oilfield, which would occupy about one ten-thousandth of the non-wilderness 1002 Area within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Again, that is an area that was specifically set aside for exploration, and the federal government recommended it be opened for that purpose in 1987. 

What we have not had, particularly in recent years, are partners at the federal level who will work with us to restore throughput to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—but I welcome the new administration, which has committed to working with us to increase responsible production and restore throughput. 

I want to close by quoting from a recent opinion piece by Admiral Tom Barrett, the president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the operator of TAPS.  He wrote in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

“Though there has been a lot of change on TAPS in 40 years, one unwavering constant remains: the commitment of the people who work on TAPS today to provide safe, reliable, operational excellence, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, resilient amid all of Alaska’s extreme geography and weather.”

[Mr./Madam] President, we commend all of the men and women who worked to build this pipeline, and who today work to keep it operating safely.  And what I would leave you with, again, is that TAPS is not just a pipeline.  It is Alaska’s economic lifeline.  It is a source of security and prosperity for us and for our nation.  And so I join my delegation colleagues, Senator Sullivan and Congressman Young, and all of the Alaskans who are marking this anniversary today.  As TAPS reaches 40 good years, we look back, and appreciate the past.  And we also look forward, and set our sights on at least 40 more.