For over thirty years, the petroleum and natural gas industries on Alaska's North Slope have created employment opportunities and a key market for oil country tubular goods. Workers on the North Slope maintain the Alaska pipeline, one of the largest pipeline systems in the world, with over 800 miles of oil tubing and casing. This article reviews how the Alaska Pipeline works and explores what it's like to work on the North Slope.
Introducing the Alaska Pipeline
Since its completion in 1977, the Alaska Pipeline has transported oil from the North Slope oil fields (Alaska's northernmost areas) across the state to Valdez on the Pacific Ocean. Oil is pumped through the seamless piping of the Alaska pipeline at a speed of 3.7 miles per hour; the entire journey takes about 12 days. At Valdez, the future fuel is stored and later put in tankers.
The pipeline is owned and operated the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of major oil companies including BP, ConocoPhillips, and Exxon Mobil.
The pipeline can carry a maximum of 2 million barrels per day, but it often carries far less. For instance, in 2008 the pipeline's oil casing and tubing conveyed an average of 700 thousand barrels per day. From its opening in 1997 to 2010, the pipeline filled nearly 20,000 oil tankers with almost 16 billion barrels of oil.
Sustaining the Alaska Pipeline
Because the pipeline sees heavy use in a very harsh environment, the pipeline's hundreds of miles of oil casing and tubing must be inspected regularly. Without proper maintenance, leaks and oil spills can occur. One graphic example of this happened in 2006, when a corroded feeder pipe failed and spilled over 6,000 barrels of oil onto the slope.
Several types of patrols watch over the Alaska pipeline: food patrols to check for leaks or settling issues, air surveys several times a day, and machine-powered scans. The mechanical devices are known as "pigs," and are sent through the pipeline to perform jobs that humans would be unable to do. As an example, the scraper pig removes wax buildup from the pipeline's oil country tubular goods. Other pigs use magnetic or ultrasonic sensors to detect corrosion.
Working on the Alaska Pipeline
Only the most rugged, adventurous individuals are drawn to work on the North Slope. Workers on the pipeline must adapt to unusual work schedules and far-flung job locations. They usually spend their downtime in Anchorage, and are brought to the North Slope for extended work periods.
It is not unusual for Alaska Pipeline workers to work 10-12 hour workdays for weeks at a time; they may spend one or two weeks on the job site, followed by one or two weeks of rest in Anchorage. Dormitory-style rooms and cafeteria meals are typically provided to workers, along with cleaning services, exercise rooms, and satellite TV and Internet access in some locations.
For many workers, above-average compensation and benefits packages justify the long stretches away from their families and friends. Many of them are also drawn to the wild beauty of the North Slope.
It's a lifestyle that will not last forever - when the oil runs out, the managing oil companies are required by law to remove all traces of the oil country tubular goods used to build the pipeline, returning much of the North Slope to its original wild state.