Forty years ago this fall, the world was caught up in an oil crisis that forever changed American energy policy. On October 16, 1973, Arab countries began an oil embargo that would last six months. The first impacts were felt on Alaska’s North Slope, where drilling companies had been battling for years to build a pipeline to transport crude oil from the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. On November 16, Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, removing regulatory barriers and subsidizing pipeline construction. It marked a dramatic defeat for the coalition of native Alaskans, environmentalists, fisherman and sportsmen who had banded together to oppose the project in the most vigorously fought conservation struggle since the damming of California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The battle lines and trajectories drawn back then continue to shape contemporary disputes about petroleum extraction, conveyance, refinement and distribution, from offshore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Keystone XL Pipeline Extension. Rarely has infrastructure been so central to American politics and yet so invisible in everyday life.
I recently completed photographing almost every mile of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, a project I’ve been working on for four years. I’ve ruined plenty of rental cars, hiked hundreds of miles in every conceivable terrain, and racked up tens of thousands of pictures. The process was slow and meditative; I worked alone and rarely encountered others on the line. In the extreme north, the summers are notoriously short, and I faced the unusual challenge of the midnight sun, which circled above my head every 24 hours, making it hard to get my bearings and anticipate how the light would act. I took many sound recordings, as well as photos in series with an intervalometer, which I am now editing into a documentary video, Topophilia. The photos presented here follow the line from north to south.
If you live in the Lower 48, chances are you live not far from an oil pipeline. There are 55,000 miles of trunk lines that convey crude oil to refineries and another 95,000 miles of refined product lines. Finding one can be difficult, though, as most lines are hidden underground, and the government often conceals precise locations for reasons of national security. Counterintuitively, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, one of the world’s longest continuous lines and the critical component of the United States’s most prolific oil field, is highly visible: a hulking structure that runs above ground for more than half of its 800-mile length. Even when not in plain view, TAPS can be tracked at any point by maintenance roads, bright orange mile markers, cleared trees and brush, and locked red gates blocking access trails.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the companies leading the Alaskan oil rush considered every possible method for conveying crude oil from the remote North Slope — ice-breaking oil tankers, airplanes, a northern extension of the existing railroad, and even tanker submarines — before settling on a buried pipeline connecting the oil fields to the ice-free port of Valdez. That plan was scrapped when geologists warned that hot oil coming out of the earth at up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit would melt the permafrost and compromise the pipeline’s structural integrity. The engineers went back to the drawing board and reimagined TAPS as a 48-inch diameter steel pipe that dives in and out of the earth depending on subsurface conditions. The pipe is capable of carrying up to 2 million barrels of oil a day (which it did at peak flow in 1988). Tall steel supports hold it high above the ground, and heat dissipators help further cool the line. Where the pipe crosses the Denali Fault Zone, it rests on skids that allow up to 20 feet of lateral movement.
In person, it is hard not to be enthralled by the spectacle of that vast, alien structure disappearing into the distance. The pipe is essentially a continuous building, supporting, sheltering and transporting a costly resource, equipped with insulation and cooling elements that vary depending on the local environment, and barriers that protect the housing in case of earthquake. That blueprint is duplicated with metronomic precision, the pipe’s sections like bars on a musical staff marking a steady beat through 800 miles of greatly varying terrain, crossing broad stretches of frozen tundra, moving over and under water, veering down snow-covered mountains. If you follow the entire length, the pipeline resembles an overgrown centipede, a kaiju, lunging from side to side effortlessly, fed by 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day.
In news photographs the pipeline is often upstaged by the immensity of the Alaskan wilderness, and rarely do we see people in the frame. TAPS is depicted in its cold solitude, a cheerless statement on human progress and environmental folly, a witness to the final days of the industrial revolution amidst the sublime beauty of a hypothetical landscape: the “last frontier.” But of course there is a practical reason for human absence, too: there aren’t a lot of people here, and the ones who do make the trip find the structure to be so massive, the horizontality so staggering, that they can’t wrap their heads around what it means, let alone photograph it. You keep pulling back to get everything in, and your subjects are inevitably diminished.
If you spend enough time along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the landscape reorders itself around the line. The sculptural nuance of the industrial system is enhanced by the natural setting, and in turn the pipeline illuminates new details in the surrounding environment. There is a tension between the reality of its elegant utilitarian function and the sheer audacity of the consummation: a perfectly engineered, efficient structure dedicated to the ruthless and expedient exhaustion of nonrenewable resources. In that way, the line has the capacity to invigorate oil capitalists and ecologists alike. It offers clarity, revealing points of stasis from which to observe the stillness of the Alaskan wilderness and the chaos of the oil rush, and realigning perspective in unexpected ways.