Alaska's Trans-Alaska Pipeline Transformed The State's Economy Oil began flowing down the trans-Alaska pipeline in 1977, transforming Alaska into a wealthy state. But if it wasn't for one man, the Prudhoe Bay oil field may not have never been found.

Alaska's 40 Years Of Oil Riches Almost Never Was

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/533798430/534286536" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Alaska's Prudhoe Bay Oil Field started production 40 years ago this month. Twelve billion barrels of oil later, it's completely reshaped Alaska. Finding Prudhoe Bay led to a major economic boom and also to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But the discovery of the giant oil field that started it all almost didn't happen. Elizabeth Harball from Alaska's Energy Desk has the story.

ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: On the floor of a drilling rig on Alaska's northernmost edge, oil workers are dwarfed by giant pieces of machinery. They're pushing pipe thousands of feet below the tundra to tap one of the biggest oil fields in North America, Prudhoe Bay. You could argue - and a lot of people do - that Prudhoe Bay's billions of barrels of oil wouldn't have seen the light of day if it weren't for a little, old man who lives in a little, brown house in Anchorage.

Hello?

TOM MARSHALL: Hello.

HARBALL: Hi.

MARSHALL: I'm Tom Marshall.

HARBALL: Tom Marshall won't bring it up himself, but for many Alaskans, this unpresuming 91-year-old is a hero. I find an award tucked between the photos lining his living room wall.

What does it say? For extraordinary foresight.

MARSHALL: For professional discernment and courageous foresight (laughter).

HARBALL: Marshall earned this award for something he did in the early 1960s, when he worked for the brand-new state of Alaska. He remembers it as a tense time with a tiny economy and population. It was a real question whether Alaska could support itself.

MARSHALL: There was a great deal of anxiety - just how we're going to accomplish this.

HARBALL: But under the Statehood Act, Congress handed Alaska something like a scratch-off lottery ticket without really knowing what was there. The state could select over 100 million acres of federal land in its borders. And if Alaska picked land with valuable resources, it would have a winning ticket.

MARSHALL: This land would put us in a position to pay our bills.

HARBALL: That's when Marshall, a petroleum geologist, quietly became Alaska's most important employee. He was tasked with picking the land. And a ragged chunk of Arctic coast called Prudhoe Bay caught his eye. The geology reminded Marshall of big oil basins he'd seen in Wyoming. This could be the jackpot Alaska needed. But when Marshall suggested selecting a remote chunk of tundra on the icy ocean, Alaska's first governor, Bill Egan, was not impressed.

MARSHALL: Governor Egan's comment was, doesn't he know it's frozen?

HARBALL: But others thought Marshall was on to something. The federal government had started leasing land in Alaska's Arctic in 1958. And a handful of oil companies were laying plans to drill. Harry Jamison worked for one of those companies. Like Marshall, Jamison hoped there might be a billion-barrel oil field hiding up there. It would take that much to justify the astronomical cost of getting the oil to market.

HARRY JAMISON: Billion-barrel oil fields don't come along every day. There have been very, very few ever discovered in the United States.

HARBALL: Starting in 1963, BP and Sinclair teamed up and drilled six wells near Alaska's Brooks Range.

JAMISON: And all six were dry.

HARBALL: After that, other companies started coming up short. Eventually, that included Jamison's company, ARCO. The oil companies that had taken a risk on Alaska's North Slope started hemorrhaging money.

JAMISON: Yeah. It was extremely discouraging. So the whole industry was really down on the North Slope by that time.

HARBALL: During this time, Tom Marshall kept pressing Governor Egan to select Prudhoe Bay. Egan finally relented in 1964. But there were a lot of skeptics. When the Prudhoe Bay selection was posted, Marshall remembers someone scrawled a note across the map in 5-inch-tall letters.

MARSHALL: They wrote Marshall's folly on there.

HARBALL: After so many failed wells, Marshall's selection did start to seem like a long shot. By 1967, most oil companies had given up. Then, ARCO and Humble Oil teamed up and moved the only drill rig left on the North Slope to Prudhoe Bay. It was the oil industry's last shot. On a flight to check out the Prudhoe Bay well just before Christmas 1967, Jamison remembers looking out the window of the plane.

JAMISON: And you don't see anything. I mean, it's absolutely black. And it's not just remote and dark and cold. But it's downright dangerous.

HARBALL: Far in the distance, Jamison spied a single light from the lonely rig. A young geologist named Gil Mull was also there. Mull says for weeks, drilling the well wasn't all that exciting.

GIL MULL: It's almost like watching grass grow.

HARBALL: Then one day, they tested the well's pressure. When the crew opened the valve, Mull says there was a powerful burst of gas.

MULL: It sounded like a jet plane overhead. It's shaking the rig. It's a rumble. It's a roar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oil at Alaska's North Slope at Prudhoe Bay - a lot of it. Possibly the biggest discovery in history.

HARBALL: Alaska would never be the same. Today, the state of Alaska believes Prudhoe Bay contained about 25 billion barrels of oil in all. Marshall's selection helped transform the state into a powerhouse fueled by oil. Marshall says he was just doing his job. I ask if it still bothers him that so many people doubted him for so long.

MARSHALL: Oh, not at all, you know, because they're so wrong (laughter).

HARBALL: For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS AMAN'S "SEND RECEIVE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story comes to us from Alaska's Energy Desk, a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.