I’m among the baby boomers who built careers in Alaska’s oil industry. For me, it began at Fairbanks in 1974 during Bechtel’s pre-pipeline work, which included constructing camps for pipeline workers and building the 360-mile road from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay.
After a two-year stint with Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. as a staff writer during the line’s construction, I was fortunate in 1978 to land a job with BP’s public affairs department a year after the first oil flowed from Prudhoe Bay. It marked the beginning of a three-decade career with the company.
In one of BP’s publications, I wrote the following report on the startup of the Prudhoe Bay field, which I think was one of the most important events in Alaska’s history.
June 20, 1977, 10:26 a.m., Operations Control Center, — OCC — Valdez: “Gathering Center 1, we have verified with Pump Station 1 that you are authorized to start production at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day.”
Gathering Center 1: “Affirmative. We have advised Pump Station 1 that we are opening the valve at Skid 50 to begin production.”
With those words, North America’s largest oil field came to life 42 years ago, charting a new future for Alaska, BP and the nation.
June 20, 1977, was a gray, overcast day at Prudhoe Bay as scores of reporters, dignitaries and others huddled around the pipeline outside Pump Station 1, listening for the “clanker pig” that would signal Prudhoe Bay’s first crude oil was moving through the 48-inch pipeline on its 800-mile journey to Valdez.
At BP’s Gathering Center 1, board operators Jim Blythe and Lowry Brott had engaged the electric shipping pumps to begin the flow of oil. Months of preparations would now be put to the test.
Gene Smagge, then a production operator, was at Skid 50 — across the road from Pump Station 1. Smagge opened the valve to send Prudhoe Bay’s first oil to market.
Eyes from across Alaska, the nation and as far as London were focused on Prudhoe Bay during the critical startup phase.
The oil front arrived at the Valdez Marine Terminal uneventfully late on the evening of July 28, and the first tanker of oil left for the U.S. West Coast on Aug 1.
Early days in the oil patch
During the 1980s, I sometimes conducted tours of BP’s Prudhoe Bay facilities. Some of the tours included celebrities such as Walter Cronkite, John Kenneth Galbraith and John Denver. But the most memorable person was Apollo 17 astronaut and former New Mexico U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt, who looked around the field in subzero weather and blizzard conditions and commented: “If we can live and work here, we can certainly do it on Mars.”
During subsequent years at BP, I wrote about BP’s multibillion-dollar investments on the North Slope that would boost oil recovery and ultimately lengthen the field’s life. This included improved drilling technology, enhanced oil recovery programs and significant expansions to oil field facilities.
Advancements in seismic survey technology and more powerful computers to interpret those surveys helped BP pinpoint smaller pockets of oil. Improved accuracy in drilling, particularly horizontal and multi-lateral drilling, allowed the company to access those smaller accumulations.
An early appraisal of Prudhoe Bay’s recoverable oil was about 9.4 billion barrels, for an estimated 40% recovery of the oil in place. Through aggressively applied technology and projects requiring billions of dollars, that figure was raised to 13 billion barrels, for a 60% recovery — and it’s believed the field has yet to yield another 1 billion barrels.
But huge investments, advancements in technology and state-of-the-art facilities are only part of BP’s epic story in Alaska. It has been the commitment and hard work of BP’s employees, its contractors and the company’s enduring role as a leading corporate citizen that have made the 60-year venture a resounding success.
And to this day, 42 years after the first oil was produced from Prudhoe Bay, I am still in awe that it was done and done so well. I will be forever proud of those people who made this chapter of Alaska’s history possible, and deeply honored to have played a small part in it.
A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and now freelance writer living in Eagle River.