Alyeska study says TAPS can operate down to 350,000 barrels per day

More study needed to see if pipeline can carry even lower flow levels

With Alaska’s oil reserves on the decline the question many face is how to prepare for lower levels of product flowing through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). Alyeska’s comprehensive Low Flow Impact Study report concludes that the line can be safely operated at levels down to 350,000 barrels per day. This limit could only be a decade or so away.


Alyeska Communications Director Michelle Egan said the current average is slightly more than 600,000 barrels a day and has dropped annually at a range of 5 to 7 percent in recent years.

This decline has been relatively steady since the pipeline’s 1989 peak at 2.1 million barrels per day. Egan said the original planners didn’t study in depth on operating below 500,000 barrels per day, which TAPS is now approaching.

“The purpose of this study is to decide on solutions to deal with being in that new territory,” said Egan.

“We will only operate the pipeline under safe conditions,” she said.

The report outlines the challenges for when the line reaches such low throughputs. Big issues revolve around wax removal, reduction in leak detection efficiency, shutdown and restart issues, ice formation, water dropout and corrosion.

The report offers recommendations on how to keep the pipeline operating safely up to 350,000 barrels per day. Several major recommendations are presented. Some of these include implementing strategies to maintain crude oil temperatures, compensating for cold weather operations, modifying current water specifications and modifying pigging designs, among other ideas.

Egan said this is the first study of this nature Alyeska has ever done. The reason is simple: the oil will keep declining. Preparations have to be made because so much of the state’s economy is dependant on the oil and gas industries. However, to do this, TAPS will require investments in order to stay competitive below 550,000 barrels per day.

As for future decline, the report sites uncertainty surrounding the issues for when the oil drops below 350,000 barrels per day. Such issues like increasing water volumes, larger wax accumulations, difficulty in pigging the pipeline and corrosion monitoring troubles are similar to the ones studied now. However, they may hold different variables at those levels and may require different actions. Egan said these issues below 350,000 barrels per day will require further study.

A large problem surrounding less oil in the pipeline is the risk of shutting down, as doing so in future winters with less oil flow could mean shutting down for weeks or even months. Egan said Alyeska is are already re-circulating inside the pipe to add heat, as well as testing additional pipe insulations.

“So there are a number of things we can do and that we’ve already started,” Egan said.

She noted it’s important to understand there are significant resources up north and that “reliable operation of TAPS means operating at a higher throughput and we want to operate and we want to get through these challenges.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has also weighed in heavily on the oil decline, securing a commitment from Senate Commerce Committee Chair Sen. John D. Rockefeller to hold a hearing on the low flow report and the challenges it insinuates.

“With about 80 percent of state revenue and some of Alaska’s best private sector jobs riding on the oil pipeline, its continued operation is obviously a top priority for our state,” the senator said in a release. “Every day I tell members of Congress and the Administration this is a national asset that delivers about 12 percent of American oil production. If we don’t act quickly to get more oil in the pipeline, that could go away in just a decade. That’s why I’m aggressively pushing for approval of more oil and gas development on federal lands and in federal waters.”

“If Congress and the Administration will support oil and gas development in Alaska, we will not only bolster our economic and national security, but continue to create much-needed jobs across the country,” Begich said. “Shell Alaska said just last week their activity in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas would mean 54,000 jobs for 50 years. It’s time to get moving and get more oil in the pipeline.”

Federal natural gas representatives also have a stake in the low flow report. As Federal Coordinator Larry Persily puts it, so does the rest of the state. Persily is with Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects and said the news that the 350,000 barrels a day mark could be hit in around a decade is certainly not news.

He also said that it’s prudent to examine the effects and to his knowledge, no other research this thorough or exhaustive had been done.

“We’re encouraging this effort because we need each other,” Persily said. “From the gas line perspective, the feeling is you need both.”

Persily said Alaska needs a functioning oil line to make the gas line possible, and vice-versa.

“Clearly that much is still a heck of a lot of oil and if there’s a way to move it out, you don’t walk away from that. It’ll just cost more to move it,” he said.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or


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