Brennan: A double anniversary year

By Tom Brennan
This Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the startup of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the source of Alaska’s incredible communal wealth, oil that first began flowing on June 20, 1977.
That anniversary should be celebrated by the many people who have benefited from the billions of barrels of oil that have flowed into the world marketplace over the last 40 years, but the cheering will be muted.  
Industry noted the occasion at the recent annual conference of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association where AOGA President/CEO Kara Moriarty gave the keynote address. And Fairbanks will hold a community celebration Tuesday evening (from 5:30-7:30) at the TAPS Fox pullout on the Steese Highway.
Kara detailed the accomplishment in her own persuasive way and I’m sure Fairbanks area community leaders will provide appropriate oratory on Tuesday, but it seems to me the rest of us should also be cheering what so many Alaskans have achieved.
Perhaps the mood of state leaders is not celebratory because we have reached the point where state spending has exceeded the state’s readily available flow of cash from the oil bonanza and difficult budget decisions must be made. That is certainly understandable, but it’s a shame that the budget problem has caused us to overlook the fact that we do have reason to be happy about our incredible good fortune over those 40 years.
This is also another anniversary year, the 50th anniversary of the Prudhoe Bay discovery itself. I remember the year well since it is when I arrived in Anchorage (from Massachusetts) to become a reporter for The Anchorage Times. 
I reported for work in The Times’ newsroom on August 7, 1967. That was an important occasion for me and a few months later I got an inkling of something far more important that was unfolding on Alaska’s North Coast. 
In early December, the newspaper’s oil-beat reporter, Ot Hampton, picked up an interesting rumor. He wrote that Bush pilots were reporting signs that Richfield Oil was flaring gas at its drill site at the mouth of the Sagavanirktok River. 
The company had drilled its way into something very interesting.

A few months later – on March 12, 1968 – Richfield and its partner, Humble Oil, announced they had made a major oil discovery on Alaska’s North Slope. The announcement turned Alaska’s world upside down. 
(Richfield later became ARCO and Humble changed its name to Exxon. Hank Rosenthal, my good friend who was then working for Humble, said the name was chosen because they ran it on a computer and it didn’t mean anything in any language. After having to defend the name “Humble” for such a large company for so many years, the decision was understandable.)
After the discovery came a 10-year fight to win the right to build a pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. The battle was largely with environmentalists who did not want an oil line built through Alaska’s pristine wilderness. Alaska political warriors like Wally Hickel and many others stepped forward and played a major role in the momentous struggle.
Two years after the news that Bush pilots were reporting gas flaring, I was hired to manage Alaska public relations for ARCO and wound up in the middle of the battle, one of the most exciting times of my life. I was there the day the pipeline started flowing and watched in awe (and with some pride) as Alaska leaders welcomed the beginning of a new era, the time when Alaska would be able to pay its own way in the world and cast off its long-held role as a ward of the federal government.
Those were exciting times and I’m happy to have played my role on the fringes of the battle. Though Alaskans are still fighting among themselves over many issues, as they always have, that was a time when we came together and overcame a formidable foe.
We need to remember that we did it and welcome the struggles ahead.

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