|MASSIVE PROJECT: This photo shows the enormous size of the 400-mile above ground portion of the Alyeska Pipeline over the permafrost terrain, which allowed crude oil from Alaska to be transported to the lower 48 states. Credit: GTR Newspapers
(Editor's Note: In June 2017, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System will celebrate 40 years of operation.)
The year 1968 was momentous in the history of the United States. It was, too say the least, a tumultuous era remembered mostly for its social, political and economic turmoil. In that same year when the largest oilfield in North America was discovered far up in the frozen Arctic Circle world of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, it didn’t draw as much attention as one would have thought considering the country was importing a whopping 35 percent of its oil from a politically sensitive part of the world.
This would become crystal clear in 1973 when an OPEC oil embargo on the U.S. would send energy costs through the roof and send a shockwave through the country’s economy. The discovery was also a good news/bad news story at the time. The good news being lots and lots of oil was beneath the forever frozen North Slope of the 49th state and the bad news being how do we get it south to the lower 48.
Humble Oil and Refining Company, later to become Exxon Company, U.S.A., was one of the companies that discovered the massive oil field. They first tried sending a specially fitted tanker into the iced-over sea to break its way to the petroleum promise land with no success. It didn’t take long for Humble Oil and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), co-founders of the oilfield, to realize a very big pipeline was the only answer.
Big meant 48 inches in diameter and 800 miles long over some of the most forbidding and environmentally sensitive terrain in the world. The destination of the pipeline would be the northern most, ice-free port at Valdez, Alaska where year-round tankers would finish the last leg of the oil’s journey. For its time it was by far the largest and most challenging engineering and construction project ever undertaken with private funding. The route of the planned pipeline would cross more than 800 rivers and streams, an active earthquake zone and three mountain ranges. When completed it would eventually cost $8 billion, a figure ten times the original estimate and would provide anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of U.S. oil needs in the following years.
To meet the unprecedented challenge, a consortium of oil companies was formed under the banner of Alyeska. Initially ARCO joined up with Humble Oil and British Petroleum Oil to form the Trans Alaska Pipeline Systems (TAPS). But even with this amount of corporate firepower the start up of the pipeline was in for years of delay.
The pipeline project would mark the first significant conflict between oil companies and a growing environmental movement. Armed with newly passed environment legislation and with help from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmentalists were pressing the case for preserving the pristine Alaskan wilderness while energy companies were trying to develop the biggest known untapped oil field in the world. The stakes were high on both sides and litigation ran rampant in the nation’s capital from the early 1970s until construction began on March 27, 1975. Many believe the conflict sparked numerous engineering innovations by Alyeska regarding environmental safety. One thing was certain, putting together the necessary number of 40-foot sections of heavy wall steel pipe would require more than 108,000 perfect and often difficult “girth” welds by a small army of premier welders. And that’s where Tulsa and its Pipeliners Local Union 798 enter the story.
They were called the 798ers and their union hall began and is still located in Tulsa. The union was founded in 1949 to oversee welding on cross-country pipeline construction in the U.S. and as a clearinghouse for union welders specializing in pipeline construction. Welding on pipeline construction is considered by some to be something between an art form and an endurance run. It is both physically and mentally demanding requiring an uncommon level of commitment and skill. There is simply no margin for error when it comes to connecting pipe sections to be lowered into the ground, covered with earth and pumped full of highly pressurized and corrosive crude oil. Faulty welds will come back to haunt as containment failures, a nice term for the really big, costly mess resulting from leaks in a pipeline. This was particularly important in the remote, pristine and unique landscape of Alaska. The obvious choice for putting together the more than 100,000 sections of pipe was the 798ers, a team of preeminent journeymen welders who had spent decades refining and perfecting their specific skill set.
Throughout this massive undertaking there prevailed an essential “whatever it takes” attitude. Whenever an impediment presented itself the same attitude that had overcome environmental threats, the logistics of not burying a pipeline in the permafrost, the preservation of wildlife, the organizational challenges, managing the ever escalating cost and more, the answer was always the same: do whatever it takes. It was an attitude not lost on the 798ers.
“Every weld was challenging in one way or another. The cold was always a big factor. The pipe sections had to be heated up in order to get a good weld. The lineup clamps would freeze to the inside wall of the pipe and we’d have to thaw them loose. The wind, the terrain, blizzards, everyday was a challenge,” according to Tulsa 798er, Kevin Leeper. He adds, “But the Alaskan landscape was wild and beautiful. Everyday we got up and went to work in the most wild, beautiful and often dangerous place anywhere in the world. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
Leeper recalls an episode when working out of a small community called Coldfeet in the northern part of the state in the Brooks Mountain Range. The town was a remnant of the Klondike gold boom days of the late 1890s. A dispute between two families over title to an old claim ended in a gun dual on the street.
“When I say Alaska was wild in those days, I mean it was wild.”
Danny Hendricks, another Tulsa 798er also remembers his days working for Alyeska and how upwards of 2,000 welders were contracted through the Tulsa based Pipeliners Local Union 798 to participate in what was easily the greatest challenging adventure they would ever face.
“In those days the whole population of Alaska was probably 200,000. The pay was very good, the hours very long, the accommodations were adequate, the work was challenging, but everyone had that can-do attitude. We just keep at it and got it done.”
In the same way a pipeline is a single strain of steel stretching across the landscape, so too is the story of the Alaskan Pipeline a collective continuum of successes strung together by people who simply didn’t know they were daily accomplishing the impossible.
In the last days of construction, as the 798er legend goes, the last one thousand feet of pipe to be welded scaled a steep, jagged rock cliff. It looked impossible and very dangerous. Nobody seemed interested in climbing up a shear cliff and dancing with thousands of pounds of steel pipe swinging on a cable in a brutally cold wind with a steep drop to one’s death thrown in. Not until Junior Leslie volunteered to “give it a shot.” After all, he’d come to Alaska to weld together a pipeline and the job wasn’t quite finished. Other 798ers risked life and limb to join him on that last little bit of welding and one more “impossible” thing got done.
On June 20, 1977, pump stations began pushing oil from Prudhoe Bay across the great wilderness divide of Alaska on its way to the lower 48. Some would jokingly refer to the completed pipeline as just another eighth wonder of the world. Over the years the pipeline has performed beyond expectations due in no small way to how well those 800 miles of pipe were welded together thanks to the 798ers.
(Source: Originally published in 2009, GTR Newspapers, republished by permission.)