A pipeline built to survive extremes can't bear slow oil flow
Here at the top of the world, January brought a glimpse of the anxious future facing Alaska's once-mighty oil pipeline.
The 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built for extreme conditions. But as the state's oil production has declined, the pipeline faces a new challenge: flows so sluggish operators worry the line may become unusable, cutting off access for hundreds of North Slope oil wells.
With the mercury dipping as low as -60 Fahrenheit, workers in January fired up heating units across the system. It worked, but if the brutal cold had lasted or the oil flow had slowed further, the pipeline would have been in uncharted territory. Four decades after it opened, Alaska's pipeline — once a symbol of independence for an oil-strapped nation — is facing a midlife crisis. The line now moves a quarter of the volume it carried at its peak. And as the flows slow, the risks are rising.
"We're already at the stress point," said Tom Barrett, president of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the system. "We don't have the kind of cushion you'd like to have."