PRINT November 2008



TO MARK NEXT YEAR’S SESQUICENTENNIAL of the discovery of oil in the United States, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI)—a thirteen-year-old organization “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived”—is mapping the prime territories of the American oil industry: Alaska, California, and Texas. An exhibition of the project’s Alaskan segment is on view this month at CLUI’s headquarters in Los Angeles; this will be followed by “Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry” in January at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston and a show in fall 2009 (also at CLUI’s Los Angeles space) about oil in California.
The first part of CLUI’s endeavor focuses specifically on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Although the four-foot-wide pipeline has a relatively minor presence in the actual landscape—Pulitzer Prize–winning author John McPhee once described it as equivalent to a “thread laid across Staten Island”—and despite the fact that its environmental impact is most profound in the invisible emissions generated by its lifeblood, this feat of engineering has an outsize place in the imagination. In the three decades since its construction, the pipeline has become a unique measure of—or cipher for—the geographic and cultural realities surrounding it. It has been bombed and shot at by some, declared obsolete by others, and made an object of tourism by day-trippers from cruise ships. The artist Jason Middlebrook recently depicted it on gallery walls (at a scale of one foot to 2.5 miles) snaking through iconic works of American Land art, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty among them.
However whimsical Middlebrook’s superimposition might seem, it is hard not to view CLUI’s analysis of the pipeline—which is presented in the following pages by the organization’s founder and director, Matthew Coolidge—through the prism of Smithson, whose approach hovers over much of the group’s work. Coolidge says that the pipeline “can be considered as a collective artwork, in a sense.” He points out that the “notions about emptiness and space and form and void and nature and humanity” broached by the pipeline are of a piece with Smithson’s dialectics. This is all the more salient since the thirst for oil has recently brought extractive interest back to the entropic landscape of Rozel Point, Utah, where Spiral Jetty stands among the subsumed traces of earlier drilling.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline seems itself destined eventually to be occluded by an even more ambitious 1,715-mile natural-gas pipeline. But these are only two of many human interventions in the Alaskan landscape, whose wildness is incised with the vestiges of earlier, madly ambitious projects—among them the pipelines that carried water to float dredges for gold extraction, the defunct railways leading to places like the abandoned copper mine in McCarthy, and the irradiated soil (imported from the Nevada Test Site) buried at Ogotoruk Creek—this last the legacy of a federal project that envisaged using nuclear blasts to carve out an artificial harbor next to the North Slope oil fields. These relics recall, as the pipelines may someday, Smithson’s observation upon finding Rozel Point: “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.”
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggested that Rome, with all its palimpsestic layering, was a metaphor for the human psyche. Alaska, ever distant but ever on the mind, perhaps represents a specifically American unconscious: It speaks to the desire for an untouched purity, but it is riddled with evidence of rapacious human acts. —TOM VANDERBILT

LIKE STONE, BRONZE, AND OTHER fundamental materials that defined the ancient ages of human industry, oil defines these times. No other raw material has such a reach into our technologies and the products that we consume. How this came to pass should be the story of our age, told and retold like myth. But the knowledge is largely preserved in a highly specialized and protected corporate college of laborers, engineers, financiers, alchemists, druids, and lords.

The places of oil production, conveyance, storage, and processing are the physical landmarks of the petroleum age. Understanding how this system works, on a national level, creates a picture of who we are as a nation.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is a four-foot-wide, eight-hundred-mile-long pipe built by seventy thousand individuals in a little more than two years, between 1975 and 1977, for $8 billion in private money. It is operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which is owned by the oil companies that dominate oil production on Alaska’s North Slope: BP (47 percent), ConocoPhillips (28 percent), and ExxonMobil (20 percent). The structure spans the entire state, from top to bottom, bringing all the oil extracted from the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay—the largest oil field in the United States—to market.

The pipeline created overland access across the Last Frontier (you can now drive to the American Arctic, if you like) and brought billions of dollars to natives, other Alaska residents, construction workers, and, of course, the oil companies. From north to south it is a physical line of connectivity, transporting buried hydrocarbon fluid from the frozen northern edge of the continent to Alaska’s ice-free port at Valdez, from where it eventually travels to the suburban driveways of the West Coast.

In another dimension, looked at from the side, the line is a barrier, a physical form, a tube on a terrestrial scale. Among the longest oil pipelines in the world, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is unique in its construction as well as in its isolation. A hundred thousand forty- and sixty-foot sections of half-inch-thick steel pipe were welded together, wrapped in insulation and an outer covering of sheet metal, and stretched across our emptiest state, in one fell swoop.

The pipeline is remarkable not just because of the way it looks, however, but because it is visible. Most pipelines are underground, as this one was originally expected to be when it was first proposed in 1968. But after more than fifteen thousand test borings were drilled along the proposed route, it was determined that 420 miles of the line were in permafrost. That does not make a stable bed for a pipeline carrying hot oil (which, heated by the earth’s core, enters the line at 120 degrees Fahrenheit), so much of the structure was forced into plain sight, creating an image in our minds of a pipeline spanning the American wilderness—and everything that represents.

Valdez Marine Terminal

The North Slope oil fields are spread out across a forty-mile-wide zone along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, between the largely untapped National Petroleum Reserve, to the west, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the east. Nine thousand people work in this zone, though nobody lives there. Most work two-week shifts of twelve hours a day, sleeping in company “man-camps” where all meals are provided (all you can eat, at no charge), after which the workers are flown back to their hometowns, all over the United States, for two weeks off. The weather, of course, is terrible.

Bligh Reef

The Haul Road, now officially called the Dalton Highway, follows the pipeline along its northern half. It was built in 1974, before work on the pipeline began, as it enabled materials and equipment to be moved north from the Yukon River, 358 miles from the pipeline’s northern terminus in the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. It was originally intended to be a private industrial road, as was promised in order to get congressional approval for the pipeline, but opened to the public in 1994 and is now Alaska State Route 11, though it is still mostly unpaved.

Pipeline plunging under the Glenn Highway

The hundreds of production wells and processing facilities on the North Slope are connected to one another by elevated pipelines. Gas is burned off on-site, and wastewater is pumped away and injected into the ground. The oil is processed at oil company facilities all over the slope.

Descending from Thompson Pass

The oil flows at around four miles an hour, taking about a week to travel to Valdez. To move the oil, eleven pump stations were built along the route. Each is a self-contained small industrial town. Due to a decrease in the volume of oil shipped and changes in the efficiency of the pumps, only six of the pump stations are currently operational. Oil flow peaked in 1988, when 744,107,855 barrels of oil moved through the pipe (at a rate of more than two million barrels per day). Now, with reduced production, around 710,000 barrels per day flow through the pipe, accounting for about 17 percent of crude oil production in the United States.

Denali fault zone skids

The processed crude petroleum converges on Pump Station 1, the beginning of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, seen here emerging from underground on the edge of the pump station and heading south. The pipeline is the only way for oil from the fields of the North Slope to get to market. It is what makes these fields viable.

Yukon River and pipeline bridge

The highest point on the pipeline is Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. Here the pipeline runs underground for eight miles in an insulated concrete box that protects it from avalanche damage.

Arctic Circle sign

Coldfoot is a town on the Haul Road. It provides the only services for a 350-mile stretch between the Yukon River and Prudhoe Bay and was the site of one of twenty construction camps built along the pipeline route. A restaurant, gas station, and motel now operate in the former construction-camp buildings.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline. All photos: The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 2008.

The pipeline has been struck by bullets several times. The half-inch-thick steel usually just dents, but on October 4, 2001, a hunter named Daniel Lewis shot the pipeline while on a drunken ATV trip with his brother. The hole produced by his .338-caliber rifle caused a jet of oil to spray seventy-five feet out, and almost three hundred thousand gallons of oil were spilled.

Acts of sabotage have also occurred. The largest single spill from the pipeline was in February 1978, when a bomb blast made a one-inch hole through which 670,000 gallons spilled. The person responsible was never identified. As a result of this incident, Alaska senator Ted Stevens lobbied, successfully, to have destructive acts to the pipeline prosecuted as a federal offense.


In addition to commercial truck traffic, the Haul Road has around twenty thousand visitors every year, and the state has erected turnouts, pit toilets, and overlooks along it. Most of the tourists come on trips organized by Princess and Holland cruise lines as part of cruise packages that otherwise focus on Alaska’s southern coast. A popular stop for a group photo is the sign at the turnout where the Haul Road crosses the Arctic Circle.

Atigun Pass

The Yukon River, which flows east to west, is a major aquatic artery for the interior of Alaska and divides the state in half. This half-mile-long bridge, built for the pipeline and the Haul Road, is the only road crossing of the river in the United States. The Arctic Ocean is 350 miles away, and the area north of the Yukon is virtually roadless except for the Haul Road. The Yukon Bridge is the largest of the thirteen bridges on the pipeline. The pipeline makes more than eight hundred river and stream crossings, most often elevated only by its supports, although in some places it is buried in a trench below the riverbed, held down by large concrete anchors that straddle the pipe.

Pump Station 1

The pipeline is designed to withstand earthquakes within a range of 5.5 to 8.5 on the Richter scale, varying according to estimated earthquake probability at points along its path. At the site believed to have the highest risk, where the pipeline crosses the Denali fault zone, the pipe is on lowered risers that rest on elongated skids, allowing for up to twenty feet of lateral and five feet of vertical movement. In November 2002, a 7.9 quake occurred along the Denali fault, with its epicenter fifty miles west of the pipeline. The pipeline moved seven feet laterally and two and a half feet vertically. Some of the support members of the pipeline were damaged, but no oil was spilled. The largest earthquake in American history, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, struck in March 1964 near Valdez, the pipeline’s southern terminus.

Pump Station 3

Thompson Pass, 770 miles downstream from Pump Station 1, is in the Chugach Mountains, the last range over which the oil has to flow. The south face of the pass is nearly vertical in places, which made this the most difficult part of the pipeline to construct. Welders and equipment had to be dangled by ropes to work on the slope. From this point, the pipeline remains buried for its final home stretch downhill to Valdez.

North Slope oil fields and pipelines

Where the pipeline crosses roadways in permafrost zones, like at the Glenn Highway, a major road artery for the state, it goes underground, where it is enclosed in material that is cooled by brine in refrigerated pipes buried alongside it. Pumping stations nearby keep the refrigerant circulating.

In elevated sections, to keep the pipeline’s buried footings (which sometimes extend seventy feet into the ground) from melting the permafrost, ammonia circulates—and transfers heat—from the base of each metal support to radiators that protrude from the top. As the ammonia cools, it condenses and drops back down to draw the heat out again. This is a circulatory system unaided by pumps.

Haul Road next to pipeline

The inlet of the Port of Valdez opens into Prince William Sound. Departing tankers keep a straight course southwest for twenty miles, then turn southeast once they get beyond Bligh Island and its adjacent submerged reef. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, piloted by the ship’s third mate (the captain was sleeping off a few drinks he’d had at the Pipeline Club restaurant before leaving), veered too far east to avoid some icebergs—a common presence in that part of the sound—and ran aground on Bligh Reef, spilling 250,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. A tower has since been constructed on top of the reef to make it more visible.

Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay

The pipeline (visible below the center of this photograph) emerges from the ground for the last time and enters the East Metering Building at the Valdez Marine Terminal. From this building the oil goes either into storage tanks or directly into tankers parked at the four available berths. Since the pipeline opened in 1977, nearly twenty thousand tankers have come and gone from Valdez, carrying more than fifteen billion barrels of oil to refineries near Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.