The Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) has already outlived initial expectations by more than ten years, though today it runs at less than a quarter of its peak volume.
The pipeline is still in fundamentally sound shape and has a few maintenance properties that would be remarkable if it was an old car: the pipeline requires a smaller maintenance staff to keep it running than it used to, and it's gotten safer and less leaky as it has aged.
Part of the reason it has aged so well is that Alaska's oil pipeline is a highly-regulated piece of industrial infrastructure owned by some of the largest corporations on the planet.
But as the pipeline's owners review how much to invest in keeping the pipeline running into a sixth decade and beyond, TAPS' maintenance quandaries sound familiar to anyone who's ever had to decide how much to invest in an aging, but much-beloved vehicle.
TAPS was built in the late '70s when the most popular car in America was the Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Like an old car, the pipeline is primarily made of steel, most of which is still in place. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company workers regularly inspect the pipe looking for signs of corrosion. When they find it, the solution usually doesn't require replacing the line. Workers add a sleeve to the damaged line to reinforce it, says Betsy Haines, Alyeska's senior vice president for operations and maintenance. Haines grew up in Anchorage during the pipeline construction boom and has worked as an engineer and manager at Alyeska for more than thirty years.
The company tries to head off damage through frequent inspection and cleaning with the intent of heading off future repair work. "The care and maintenance that we put into it over time has helped extend its life," Haines says.
Nearly all of the more-than 100,000 sections of elevated and buried pipe are original, she says. The largest new segment is an 8.5 mile reroute north of the Brooks Range built in 1991 to replace a section of corroded pipe.
But while the body of the pipeline hasn't changed much, looking under the hood one sees lots of shiny replacement parts, most notably inside the pumping stations.
The original turbine-powered pumps were replaced with electric pumps during a major pipeline system revamp called "strategic reconfiguration" that was launched in 2001 and cost more than $600 million. Although a major expenditure, the project represented a small fraction of the original pipeline construction price tag of $8 billion.
Some pump stations have closed entirely. As oil flows decreased, Alyeska mothballed no-longer necessary pump stations and repurposed some into stations for adding heat or cleaning devices to the line. The pipeline had eight pump stations at startup and ten at the height of production. Today four pump stations remain in operation.
The next change is planned for August at Pump Station 7, north of Fairbanks. Pump Station 7 hasn't been needed for pumping for some time but found a second life in the low-volume era adding heat to the line. The warming is no longer needed because of heat-adding equipment upstream, so this summer crews will direct the line to bypass the pump station.
It famously took a workforce of nearly 30,000 people at the peak of construction to build TAPS, creating a boomtown environment along the route. While...