Down the Line: Exploring the Environmental History of Pipelines

The recently completed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, 1977. Library of Congress.

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the seventh in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Rachel Gross, at rsgross@wisc.edu.

The recently completed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, 1977. Library of Congress. 

The past five years have witnessed the greatest resurgence of environmental activism since at least the Nuclear Freeze Movement of the 1980s, if not the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. From Vancouver, British Columbia, to Standing Rock, North Dakota, and Washington D.C., hundreds of thousands of people have mobilized to block the construction of new pipelines throughout North America. Oil and gas producers are in the midst of the largest increase in pipeline construction in fifty years because of the boom in hydraulic fracturing and the expansion of Alberta’s Tar Sands. While the intensity of anti-pipeline protests is unprecedented, pipeline controversies are hardly a new phenomenon. Since the 1960s, dozens of pipeline projects have been opposed, and many defeated, on environmental grounds.

The biggest pipeline battle in U.S. history erupted in 1968 as oil companies discovered the largest petroleum reservoir in North America at the same historical moment an ascendant Environmental Movement targeted the scourge of oil pollution. A consortium of the world’s largest oil companies soon proposed building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) from the site of the discovery at Prudhoe Bay, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, through 800-miles of Alaskan wilderness to the warm-water port of Valdez. Utilizing the recently-passed National Environmental Policy Act, emboldened environmentalists delayed the pipeline for over four years and forced the most comprehensive environmental review ever undertaken. Yet with the eruption of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, Congress approved the project and a consortium of petroleum companies set to work constructing a sprawling pipeline system that forever changed Alaska’s peoples, government, and wilderness.

While I was initially drawn to the Alaska Pipeline for its relevance to contemporary environmental politics, the project’s fascinating history of controversy and high-stakes development ultimately captured my imagination. I soon discovered the pipeline unified a whole range of seemingly disparate topics—the construction of West Coast refineries, offshore Arctic drilling, U.S.-Canada energy politics, the settlement of Alaskan Native land claims, a proposed Seattle-Chicago pipeline, the nation’s first oil export ban, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The history of the Alaska Pipeline revealed an extraordinary period in energy history and highlighted the contours and limits of the Environmental Movement.

The Pipeline—the largest private industrial project of the 20th Century—transformed Alaska from one of the poorest to one of the richest states in the nation. Thanks to the oil pumped through this silver snake, Alaskans enjoy the wealthiest social welfare state in the union. The state has long had the highest spending per capita of any state in the nation. Alaskans may talk like Texans, but they act like Norwegians. The prospect of the Pipeline also forced Alaska and the federal government to resolve First Peoples’ land claims. The 1971 Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was the most sweeping and generous settlement to First Peoples in U.S. history, but it restructured Native communities into profit-seeking corporations. Finally, the Pipeline also created a sprawling petroleum economy with ecological effects spanning from the North Slope of Alaska to Southern California and beyond. The Exxon Valdez oil spill proved to be the single most devastating failure of the pipeline system (the maritime transportation of Arctic oil was always an inseparable part of the pipeline system).

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In an ironic twist of fate the Exxon Valdez oil spill stopped the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. Cartoon by Joe Heller, Green Bay Press-Gazette, in the Audubon Activist, May 1991.

These fascinating interconnections made me realize that pipelines were not only infrastructure of enormous environmental change, but they also offered a compelling narrative lens to follow this change over time. As crucial elements of “midstream” development—in the parlance of the petroleum industry—these carbon conduits influenced “upstream” production as well as incentivized “downstream” consumption. Pipelines always exerted environmental change far beyond their narrow physical footprints. I recognized the opportunity to use the history of the Alaska Pipeline to tell a far larger story about fraught “modernization” of First Peoples, the construction of the Alaskan petro-state, and the industrialization of the Arctic.

A few scholars have written excellent books about the controversy and construction of the Alaska Pipeline, but no one has yet written a holistic history of the pipeline.[1] Scholars have not analyzed the pipeline’s long operational history since opening in 1977 or followed its expansive geographical influence. Innovative new energy histories—like Christopher Jones’ Routes of Power and Andrew Needham’s Power Lines—inspired me to broaden my analysis and think spatially about the environmental and social consequences of energy infrastructure.[2] My dissertation aims to “follow the oil” from the wellhead, through the pipeline and oil tankers, to the refineries, automobile tailpipes and beyond.[3] Therefore I am tracing the environmental and political power of the pipeline aystem all along its 3,200-mile supply chain.

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United States Geological Service Energy Map

Perhaps the most fascinating consequence of the pipeline is how it increased oil development throughout the Arctic. The Alaska Pipeline is the only infrastructure for exporting North Slope crude to consumers. Since the U.S. government approved the project in 1973, oil companies have invested enormous sums in oil development because the pipeline provides an economic route to market. Fossil-fuel infrastructure like pipelines provide the essential access which allows for sustained and expanded hydrocarbon extraction. Without a means to export Arctic oil, the vast North Slope oil fields would merely be potential reserves, rather than economic resources that return billions of dollars to Alaska and the petroleum industry.

The design and dynamics of the pipeline have also been a major force spurring more petroleum exploration and production. Quite simply, as the North Slope oil fields have declined since the late 1980s, the Pipeline is now pushing far less oil through its pipe than engineers designed the system to safety handle. As the oil moves slower, it cools faster, causing a buildup of oil-wax and ice that have caused catastrophic structural failures.[4] Unless more Arctic oil development increases the pipeline’s throughput, it may be shutdown and dismantled—severing Alaska’s oil revenues. This is why Alaska’s Governor Bill Walker declared, “we need to get oil in the pipeline…We need to do it as quickly as possible.”[5] His sentiment highlights what Alaskans are all too aware of, but few in the “Lower 48” recognize: drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the Arctic Ocean is fundamentally linked with refueling the pipeline and continuing its financial largess.

These dynamics mean that the pipeline will last far longer than the initial 30-40 years most engineers expected. Thus, pipelines are the ideal example of the path dependence that socio-technological infrastructure creates and perpetuates. With an incoming administration whose top priorities include opening ANWR and the Arctic Ocean for drilling, the pipeline will likely continue to serve as America’s Arctic artery well into the future. The Alaska Pipeline is a tremendous engine of inertia and its endurance will undoubtedly be a hallmark of its legacy. As humanity struggles to decarbonize the global economy, historians and policy makers alike should keep a keen eye on the momentum of energy infrastructure like pipelines.


[1] For academic histories of the pipeline’s controversy and construction, see Peter Coates, The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy,  Berry, The Alaska Pipeline: The Politics of Oil and Native Land Claims, and Georgia P. Welch, “Right of Way: Equal Employment Opportunity on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, 1968-1977”, Duke University Dissertation, 2015.

[2] Christopher Jones, Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press), Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton University Press, 2014).

[3] Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2011)

[4] James Brooks, “Slow flow, low flow is oil pipeline’s issue,” Juneau Empire, February 3rd, 2016. Mohamed A. Abdel-Rahman, “Resource Plays could Help Refill Trans-Alaska Pipeline,” Oil and Gas Journal, Jan. 7th, 2011

[5] Jennifer A. Dlouhy, “Shell Arctic decision has ripple effect on Trans-Alaska pipeline,” Houston Chronicle, September 29th, 2015

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I'm a Rose and Irving Crown Fellow and History PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. I study global histories of energy and the environment, with a focus on pipelines, energy infrastructures, and climate change. My dissertation is tentatively-titled “Arctic Artery: An Environmental History of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, 1945-2012”

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