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Review: 'The Trans-Alaska Pipeline' at the Center for Land Use Interpretation

December 17, 2008 |  4:45 pm

'The Trans-Alaska Pipeline'

Not all that long before Facebook, Flickr and Snapfish became the favorite ways people exchange images, families shared their vacation pictures by inviting neighbors over to watch slide shows of summer holidays.

As a kid, I liked looking at the projected snapshots far more than I enjoyed listening to the adults drone on about the dreary details of family trips: overheated radiators, two-for-one lunch specials and unspeakable restrooms.

At the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a 40-minute slide show delightfully free of audio takes visitors back to the best moments of those pre-digital days: awesome images of faraway places unspoiled by long-winded stories. The only words in “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline” are in the informative captions beneath some of the pictures, which were taken by Matt Coolidge, the center’s director, as he and independent writer Bill Fox traveled the length of the 800-mile pipeline.

Last August, their two-week trip began at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, in Prudhoe Bay, where 6,000 employees work 14-day shifts at the largest oil field in the United States. There’s no public access to the 40-mile-wide zone surrounding the drilling fields, where oil was discovered in 1968, so Coolidge and Fox rented a helicopter.

The pictures are flat-out otherworldly. The bay’s marshy landscape is crisscrossed by shiny steel pipes that run parallel to one another before disappearing into the earth or angling off to various windowless structures. No people are visible. But big trucks, double-decker mobile homes and one-of-a-kind vehicles, designed to drive and float through the marshy tundra, add to the alien atmosphere.

At mile 0, just before Deadhorse Airport, stands Pump Station 1. It’s where the pipeline emerges from the ground and begins its zigzagging, up-and-down, river-crossing trip to Valdez, a port on the Pacific where oceangoing tankers are filled with a fraction of the 700,000 barrels of crude that flow daily through the 4-foot-diameter pipe.

The most famous tanker to leave the port was the Exxon Valdez, which hit a reef in 1989 and caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The pipeline itself holds 9 million barrels of oil. At an average speed of 4 miles per hour, it takes the oil nine days to make its way from one end to the other.

The first half of the trip follows the Dalton Highway, a dirt and gravel road built in five months in 1974 to provide access for the pipeline’s construction crews. The road is an engineering feat that pales in comparison to the pipeline, which was built from 1975 to 1977 by 70,000 workers and with $8 billion in private investments.

Spectacular views of the Alaska landscape are regular features of the slide show, including herds of musk ox, fields of wildflowers, snow-capped peaks and hills that appear to roll forever. The largest town the pipeline travels through is Wiseman, population 20. Small ones include Coldfoot, Gobblers Knob and Old Man.

The pipeline’s unique characteristics are equally impressive. Where it crosses the continental divide and must endure avalanches, it is buried in an 8-mile-long concrete box. Where it is susceptible to earthquakes, it sits on skids that allow it to slide 20 feet from side to side and 5 feet vertically. In other places it’s elevated to allow caribou to migrate.

Its most distinctive feature is the 420 miles that run above ground. Most pipelines are buried for protection and stability. That was the original plan for this one. But the oil carried through it comes out of wells at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat would melt the permafrost, turning the ground to mud and causing the pipeline to crack. So the engineers designed aluminum-fringed and ammonia-cooled supports for the thickly insulated pipeline.

The slide show ends at mile 799, where the pipeline enters the Valdez Marine Terminal. Coolidge and Fox again go airborne, renting a plane to photograph the surreal spectacle of the massive facility set in the sublime landscape and giving visitors a glimpse of a trip beyond words.

-- David Pagel

The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-5722, through March 9. Open noon-5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Above: An image from “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline.” Credit: The Center for Land Use Interpretation

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