Oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. A pipeline was considered the only viable system for transporting the oil to the nearest ice-free port, over 800 miles (1,280 km) away at Valdez. The oil companies with exploitation rights grouped together as the Alyeska consortium to create a company to design, build and then operate the pipeline. US President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act into law on November 16, 1973, which authorized the construction of the pipeline.
The 800 mile route presented special challenges. As well as the harsh environment, the need to cross three mountain groups and many rivers and streams, the permafrost of Alaska meant that almost half of the pipeline's length had to be elevated rather than buried as normal to prevent the ground melting and shifting. There were five years of surveying and geological sampling before construction began.
The single 48 inch (1.22 m) diameter pipeline was built between March 27, 1975 and May 31, 1977 at a cost of around $8 billion. The pipe was constructed in six sections by five different contractors employing 21,000 people at the peak of work, 31 were killed in accidents during construction. There are twelve pump stations, each with four pumps. Usually only around seven stations are active at one time.
Oil began flowing on June 20, 1977. Since then over 13 billion barrels have been pumped, peaking at 2.1 million barrels per day in 1988. Around 16,000 tankers have been loaded at the Marine Terminal at Valdez. The terminal has berths for four tankers and cost almost $1.4 billion to build. The first tanker to leave the terminal was the ARCO Juneau on August 1, 1977.
The worst spill relating the pipeline was in 1989 when over 260,000 barrels were lost by the Exxon Valdez. The highest losses from the pipeline itself was in February 1979 when malicious damage led to more than 16,000 barrels leaking out at Steele Creek. From 1977-1994 there were 30 to 40 spills a year on average, the worst years in terms of number of incidents were 1991-1994 when there were 164 spills, although none were major. Since 1995 the number of spills has been sharply reduced with total losses from 1997-2000 totalling only 6.89 barrels.
See also: Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP)