While most pipelines are buried, a little over half of TAPS is above ground — on 78,000 vertical supports. Permafrost is the first of many challenges that pipeline engineers have had to face. “Alaska is Alaska,” says Alyeska president Tom Barrett. (Flickr photo, Ryan McFarland)

The Trans Alaska Pipeline is 40 years old, and the man in charge of running it thinks it could last another 40 years.

Tom Barrett says that engineers were figuring out ways to keep the 800-mile long, 48-inch steel pipeline in service, at lower flow rates than it was designed for.

Barrett is the president of Alyeska Pipeline Services Company. He spoke to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (11-29-17).

Downloadable audio.

Tom Barrett snaps to attention during the flag salute that begins every Sitka Chamber meeting. He spent 35 years in the Coast Guard — 13 of them in Alaska between Juneau and Kodiak — eventually rising to the level of vice-commandant.

In some ways, he’s the perfect individual to operate the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Keeping large, steel infrastructure in top condition has been his life’s work. Whether it’s a ship or a pipeline, the issues are the same.

Tom Barrett oversees around 800 employees at Alyeska, and another 800 contractors. There are 9 million barrels of oil in TAPS at all times. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“This isn’t the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at night, but it’s on my radar pretty much all the time. We’re 40 years old. And any 40-year old system — any 40-year old vessel, right? — age brings issues with it. And it’s a constant attention thing. Corrosion is a constant threat to us. Mechanical systems break down. We’re constantly renewing. And a fair amount of investment goes into keeping our operation reliable, safe, and environmentally positive.”

Barrett said that the biggest technical challenge for the pipeline was lower volumes. At its historical peak in 1998, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System — called TAPS for short — moved 2-million barrels of oil per day from the North Slope to Valdez — in a trip that took about about 4 days.

Currently the flow is one-quarter of that — about 50 0,000 barrels per day — and it makes the trip in 18 days. Most people assume that this would be easier overall on the pipeline’s systems. But Barrett said this is not the case.

“It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s harder for us to operate safely with the low flow. The example I give is: It’s like your car. If you have a reasonably new car and it’s designed to run along the highway at 55 mph — it’s most efficient, it’s most reliable — that’s kind of the space it’s in. If you drove it all the time at 15 mph, pretty soon you’re building up carbon and soot, and it’s starting to clunk along a bit, and you’re getting backfires. Our system is the same way. Moving less is harder. It’s not that there’s less oil in the pipe — the pipe is always full, 9-million barrels of oil are in the line every day — but it’s the flow rate, how fast it moves down the line. And that slowness causes us problems with water, and freezing — Alaska’s still Alaska — and wax.”

Barrett said that his company’s engineers had developed equipment to remove the paraffin buildup in the pipeline, and re-entrain it if possible. Otherwise, it’s barged south to Washington state as hazardous waste. Another big problem is keeping the oil warm: Where once snow completely melted from the system’s storage tanks, workers now have to go up and shovel all winter long.

Barrett operates a pipeline; he’s not in the oil business. He didn’t have answers for the Sitka Chamber about future prospects for oil development on the North Slope. But he did not expect TAPS to be going out of service anytime soon.

“I’m absolutely confident I can operate down to that 300,000 barrel range safely now. I know that. And we’re doing a lot of research to figure out how can we get below that? And I think that we’ll solve most of the technology issues. But in terms of having this system: What’s the cost per barrel? And that folds into the cost of exploring and producing, and all of the logistics that go with Alaska. I don’t have a perfect answer — it’s not immediate, right? — I’d like to have the line around at least another 40 years.”

Although Barrett was preparing to operate TAPS at even lower flows, he was optimistic. Over the last three years the flow rate through the pipeline has been stable, or increased. “I’m worried about below-300,” he said. “But it’s not in my face.”