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> Oil, The pipeline, ANWR and a note from Ron
post Jun 21 2005, 03:46 AM
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20 June 2005

After a great day of hiking I am back in the plots today. I’m not sure what we will be doing but there are many species still to be removed. The weather is cold and hazy but the haze is all due to smoke blowing in from the south. The smoke is not overwhelming but it has made it seem like twilight all the time.

A personal interest of mine for a long time has been the fuel situation in our world. Beginning in a physics class in college where we modeled how many years we could continue to use oil products (not long) I have been curious as to how we will continue to meet our power needs. Alaska has been a chance to see an oil pipeline and an economy that struggles to function based on oil.

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The oil pipeline was built in the 1970s. Plentiful supplies of oil had been found in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the state was keen to capitalize on those reserves. Much like the debate over ANWR today the national debate was heated and a tie in the senate was broken when Spiro Agnew cast the vote to allow the construction of the pipeline. In that time period they were also concerned about the Arab oil embargo and what it was doing to gas prices. The government was interested in being less dependent on foreign sources of oil.

The Dalton Highway (then called the Haul Road) was built to make supply and repair to the pipeline possible and soon after construction on the pipeline began. Oil companies had planned for an underground pipeline but a prominent geologist wrote a paper convincing them that it would not work. The permafrost in Alaska combined with a pipeline of warm oil would not go together. If the heat of the pipeline melted the permafrost it could cause sections of the permafrost to collapse much like you saw when the thermokarst collapsed.

The result was a pipeline that had sections above ground and some sections below. The sections below ground are located in areas that do not have permafrost and are not in danger of collapse.

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Not only did they raise it but they also made sure that it could move as the metal expanded and contracted. As you can see in the picture above the pipeline isn’t really attached to those supports—it can move back and forth and even sideways as temperatures change. Another thing they did to handle expansion and contraction and the speed of the oil was to place turns in the pipeline. Both of these innovations also allow the pipeline to move during earthquakes which are small but fairly frequent.

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In some parts of the raised pipeline you can see cooling fins (not shown) at the top of the supports. This has to do with keeping the ground cool in the winter. The pipe is filled with ammonium nitrate gas. This gas does nothing in the summer. In the winter as the wind blows onto the fluting the gas condenses and drips to the bottom. At the bottom the warmer ground heats up the cold liquid and it returns to a gas. As this happens heat is taken away from the bottom of the pipe. This causes the ground at the bottom of the pipeline supports to freeze harder and more completely than ground in other areas of the tundra. This is good for the winter support of the pipeline and means that the pipeline is even better supported in the summer.

As our country is once again faced with the idea of opening up part of Alaska so we do not have to depend as much on foreign oil it is interesting to take a look at how the pipeline works here. At this point the government of Alaska is very dependent on oil to make their state run. When they need more money they are in the habit of seeking it out in oil related ways. Residents of Alaska even get money back from the state ($950 last year) based on oil revenues. Oil companies have begun to realize that on ground drilling in ANWR would not be the easiest way to make more money off of oil. Oil company estimates of probable oil are proprietary but the USGS estimates that there are 35 trillion cubic feet of oil in ANWR—this may sound like a lot but it would not last long the way oil is currently being used.

As I have said before, we should become leaders in alternative energy sources. We should not hide behind economic worries that may or may not really pan out. With every major change in US history there have been threats to the economy and they have all been overcome. This one will more easily be overcome if we start fixing it now rather than drag our feet, constantly ignoring scientific evidence along the way.

My friend Ron is a professor of environmental ethics at Northeastern and he puts it this way,

The McCain-Lieberman act on climate change and global warming is going to come up soon in the senate. There is, it is said, actually a chance that the bill will pass; and it would be a big deal if it did. The United States has roughly 5 % of the world's population, but produces 25% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Not only that, but every independent economic analysis I am aware of has shown that increasing alternative energy production produces many more jobs than spending money on increasing fossil fuel production. (The reason for this is, primarily, that fossil fuel exploration, extraction, refinement, etc. are nowadays very capital heavy, but not labor heavy activities; whereas increasing alternative fuels will require building new technologies, production facilities, distributions mechanisms, etc. and so are labor heavy.) It is for this reason that strong labor-environment coalitions (sometimes called blue-green alliances) are starting to emerge around this issue. It (alternative energies) are a win for jobs and a win for the environment.
The EU has already committed to increasing alternative energies by 12.5% and decreasing greenhouse gas emission by 15% by 2010. They also control 85% of the world wind turbine manufacturing market, whereas the U.S. has 9%. We are way behind on this. It is bad for our jobs, bad for the environment, bad for national security (to be so oil dependent), and (because subsistence farmers in poor nations are going to suffer the most from climate change, which they contribute to negligibly while we contribute so much) morally bankrupt.
If you are concerned about this issue, this would be a good time to contact your senator about it. Unfortunately, there is no chance of a similar bill passing in the House at this time, and so the act is not likely to become law. But getting the senate to pass it would be a huge step in the right direction; and it would help in negotiations on the House's fossil fuel heavy energy bill.

I came to Alaska with an open mind about how citizens of Alaska view oil. I understand that they are indeed their own state and have some control over what they do with their resources. After thinking about it for months and now having investigated on my own I must agree with Ron and say enough. Use the oil we currently have tapped but let us begin putting money into long term real solutions to the problem.
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post Jun 21 2005, 06:34 AM
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Really interesting post. I thought you and other readers might be interested in some pictures that show the affect on the oil pipeline of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in November 2002 (not exactly a small earthquake). The earthquake was centered in the Alaska Range, about 350 miles south of Toolik Field Station. The pipeline in that area came very close to sliding off its support beams, in a place where there they built extra wide supports because this is where the pipeline crosses a major fault. The supports are about 30 feet wide and I understand that the pipeline slid back and forth across these supports and came within about a foot of sliding off, very close to what would probably have been a catastrophic failure.

The link to more pictures:

Here is a picture that shows the direction in which the ground and the pipeline moved on either side of the fault.

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This picture also shows the cooling fins that you mention in your post (right side, middle and bottom of the picture).

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