Northern red tape: Congressman warns Alaska pipeline could be dismantled within 10 years

The Obama administration is setting the stage for the dismantling of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and poses the greatest threat to its existence today, according to House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings.

The 800-mile pipeline cost $8 billion to construct in the 1970s, and has moved more than 18 billion barrels of crude oil. Three oil companies constructed it, in the face of significant opposition from environmentalists, in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

The federal government approved the pipeline as part of a strategy to secure domestic alternatives to oil from the Middle East. But the Natural Resources Committee notes that the law authorizing the then-controversial pipeline’s construction came with a caveat: If the pipeline should ever cease being viable, it must dismantled.

That day could come within the next decade.

Hastings told The Daily Caller the Trans-Alaska Pipeline remains an important national-security asset today just as it was in the 1970s, because it helps reduce Americans’ dependence on foreign oil.

According to Hastings, the Obama administration has shown a greater interest in appealing to “far-left environmentalists” than in preserving a pipeline that carries approximately 10 percent of the nation’s daily oil output and is responsible for one-third of Alaska’s economic output. (RELATED: Study links El Nino climate to civil wars, unrest)

“Basically, what they’re doing is allowing the pipeline to dry up,” Hastings said. “The bottom line is, you need to have a certain flow of oil through the pipeline to keep it viable, especially when it’s wintertime … because [then] you have some infrastructure problems within the pipeline.”

The flow of oil from Prudhoe Bay along Alaska’s Northern Slope down to Valdez on the state’s southern coast has steadily declined from its peak of 2.1 million barrels per day in 1988 to approximately 650,000 barrels today.

Published estimates from the federal Energy Information Agency suggest that number could decline to 490,000 barrels per day by 2015, a number low enough to endanger the pipeline’s continuing viability. The agency’s estimate for the year 2030 is just 270,000 barrels per day.

Alaska’s deputy commissioner of the its Department of Natural Resources, Joe Balash, told a congressional subcommittee in June the declining flow of oil through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline threatens to physically clog it, endangering the environment.

Indeed, according to Alyeska, the company that manages the pipeline, at these lower production levels the pipeline may become useless as “low flow” permits ice crystals to grow. A low enough flow of oil could also allow surrounding soils to freeze, endangering the pipeline through frost heaves and other ground-buckling phenomena.

Balash also warned Congress that shutting down the pipeline would have a “crushing impact on Alaskans” because one-third of the state’s economy is tied to oil production.

“The loss of North Slope oil production would deprive state and local governments of billions of dollars in annual revenue,” Balash warned. “Rural communities, particularly those that have significantly benefited from oil development such as the North Slope Borough, would face significant decreases in their standard of living.”

Nonetheless, environmental activists have successfully lobbied the Obama administration to keep Alaska’s vast energy resources — including an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil and 114 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — “under lock and key,” in Hastings’ chosen words.