When I visited Alaska for the first time in 2000, I was quite disappointed about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. In my imagination, the pipeline would be much larger than what I saw at the Fairbanks pipeline viewing post. Well, in an after thought the disappointment was not justified. When driving up the haul way in 2003, I was quite impressed by the pipeline system.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) encompasses about 800 miles (1,300 km) of pipeline, several hundred miles of feeder pipelines, 12 pump stations, and the Valdez Marine Terminal. In some places, the pipeline is above the ground, while in other places it is below the ground. In both cases, it is constructed to protect the permafrost. Above the ground, the pipleine is on stalks to protect the permafrost and to allow caribou and musk ox herds to roam the land. It has a very intelligent cooler-heater system that ensures that the warm crude oil would not thaw the permafrost and the cold winter air temperature would not freeze the oil in the pipe.
I was quite impressed when I heard for the first time that one of the hundreds of Alaska wildfires crossed the pipeline and the pipeline had no damage at all.
The pipeline is surveyed several times a day for leaks from air crafts carrying sensors for methane. A leak would mean concentrations above the average background (natural) methane concentration. Moreover, the flights ensure visible inspection. There are also foot and road patrols that inspect the pipeline between stations for leaks shifting, and other potential issues.
In summer, students hired for the season walk the entire pipeline from Prudhoe Bay as well as from Valdez to look for issues. Before they start their 800 miles summer walk, they are trained in Alaska survival and what to look for. They also have satellite phone so they can immediately get into contact with the next pump station for help in an emergency or when they find something on the pipeline.
The pipeline goes thru difficult terrain in some places like the Atigun Pass, or Keystone Canyon. It crosses rivers, creeks and mountains. At Yukon Crossing, the pipeline crosses the river parallel to the wood bridge of the Dalton Highway.
The oil travels on average at a speed of 3.7 mph (6 km/h). Thus, when oil enter the pipeline at Pump Station 1 on the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, it will reach Valdez after about 11 days and 21.6 hours. Did you know this?
Do you know that you can get a tour on the oil fields in summer? You have to get a reservation 24 hours in advance. Thus, when you drive up the haulway it is best to call from Fairbanks. The latest possibility is to call from Coldfoot. Note that in Alaska, there is no cell phone service about 30 miles outside of the communities. After Coldfoot, the next cell phone contact possible is Deadhorse where the tours start. I can really recommend these tours. They were very informative about oil drilling techniques, safety, environmental protection, ice and winter road construction as well as cleaning up the tundra. Furthermore, the tour is the only way to get to the Arctic Ocean from Deadhorse. We even saw a polar bear farther away on the beach thru my hubby’s binoculars.
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