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TAPS at 40 in the news: "Taking stock as TAPS turns 40"

A recent opinion column in the Alaska Dispatch News, submitted by staff of Alaska's former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, takes a look at TAPS at 40, the political and physical efforts that led to its construction and how it is positioned for the future of Alaska.

The writers note, "Oil first flowed south to Valdez on June 20, 1977. Forty years later, it is still the superpower among economic drivers for Alaska. But looking at the pipeline's role today, it's as though the coin has turned. Cause and effect have changed places. …

"Forty years out, it's important to remember how the pipeline came into existence. Alaskans are 'can-do' people. But the actual building of the pipeline was by no means inevitable. …

"Forty years later, it may look like ancient history and it may seem like the pipeline was inevitable. But in truth it could have turned out differently. Alaska and the scope of opportunity it has come to take for granted could have been radically constrained."

The writers include Campbell Gardett, who served as Sen. Mike Gravel's press secretary; William Hoffman, who was Gravel's legislative director; Jim Palmer, who was his office and staff manager; and former State Sen. Mike Szymanski, who previously served as Sen. Gravel's Fairbanks representative.

Click here to read the column.

Pipeline pop culture: "Pipeline" a novel idea that misses the mark

Within the pantheon of pipeline pop culture – the references to TAPS in movies, documentaries, music and more – there is a thick paperback called "Pipeline: A Novel."

Published in 1976, penned by a man named Milt Machlin, the novel promises a story of "big oil," "big money," and "the scandal of a century." Whether it ever lived up to its lofty storyline is debatable. With only a single-star rating on Amazon and one lone post from an unimpressed reader, it doesn’t appear "Pipeline" garnered much acclaim.

"This is the biggest piece of drivel I have read in my life," an offended reader wrote on the book's Amazon page, "and I read a lot of books. There is so little truth to this story as to be laughable." The citizen critic, a self-described grandmother with family who work on the Slope, said the sensational book was "tantamount to defiling a national monument. … This book is TRASH."

It wouldn't be the first time TAPS is, well, imaginatively trashed for sake of storytelling. The pipeline is famously featured in the generally panned vampire flick "30 Days of Night," in fact providing a pivotal plot point: the good guys take advantage of an oil spill from the line, lighting it on fire to fend off the vampire attackers.

In "The Simpsons Movie," the Simpson family is treated with a $1,000 check upon entering Alaska, told it's essentially a payoff from oil companies so they can "ravage" the state. Ouch. The industry is also broadly featured in Steven Seagal's 1994 macho movie "On Deadly Ground," in fact opening with Seagal – both director and star – rushing to fight an oil rig fire. The movie even filmed on location in Valdez. It also made Siskel and Ebert's list of the 10 worst movies of the year.

One would have to muddle through Machlin's 607-page TAPS manifest to determine whether the pages include fires or vampires. It's back cover promises "explosive" action and "conflicting desires," with colorful characters like oil tycoon Wilbur Steele and his lusty daughter "who seeks refuge in radical politics and free sex." Paging through, there is evidence Machlin at least did some research. He references specific pump stations, names still-existing companies, and cites landmarks like the Denali Fault.

Curious? There are nearly 20 used copies available to purchase on Amazon for as little as one cent. Interestingly, a "new" copy is going for $2,842.01.

But the person who posted the Amazon review suggests readers skip it entirely: "If you want to read something about Alaska, try (James) Michener's 'Alaska.'"

#TAPSGenerations: Bob and Nate Carson

Nate Carson
Pipeline Design Engineer based in Anchorage
One-and-a-half years at Alyeska
Bob Carson
Laboratories Manager based in Anchorage, father of Nate
25 years on TAPS – 8 as a contractor, 17 at Alyeska

A few years ago, when Nate Carson was finishing his master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Auburn in Alabama, he figured his dream of working in his home state of Alaska was just that – a dream. There were just too many uncertainties surrounding Alaska's oil industry, economy and job market, he thought.

Around that time, an old family friend told him about an opportunity at an Alaska company that Nate was very familiar with: Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, where his dad Bob Carson has worked at for 17 years, currently as a Lab Manager.

That family friend is Alan Beckett, another longtime Alyeska employee who was Operation & Maintenance Engineering Manager at the time. Now Alyeska's Mechanical Integrity Manager, Alan knew that Nate would be a perfect fit at Alyeska.

"His grad school experience was a strong validation that he had the necessary skills to succeed and, having seen him grow up, I also knew that he had integrity, a strong work ethic and that he's an outdoors guy," explained Alan, who was part of Nate's interviewing process but stepped aside for the final hiring decision. "And when you come from a TAPS family, you just learn about the pipe."

While Nate's Alyeska career is just starting, his dad has held numerous roles in Analytical Lab Services for Alyeska. Bob admitted that he has taken the TAPS and Alyeska experience home with him over the years and also said he isn’t surprised that it rubbed off on his son.

"I've definitely shared stories about travel on the pipeline and emphasized safety culture at home," he said. "I required safety glasses and earplugs when working around the house or shop. … Everyone in our family fully understands the dependency we Alaskans have on that black gold flowing through TAPS."

Bob said that working on TAPS is very rewarding. He calls his colleagues "very talented" and said he is proud of their diligence every day to ensure that the crude properties and quantities are measured accurately on TAPS. Over the years, a big bonus to the job has been traveling on TAPS.

"I have fond memories of some beautiful vistas near Pump Station 6 in the mid-1990s when the sunset painted the sky Alaska pink and orange, which was reflected off the Yukon River," he said.

Bob is excited that his son is now making his own TAPS memories. They work in the same building – CenterPoint West in Anchorage, Nate on the second floor with his fellow engineers, Bob on the third floor with Oil Movements. Their work and projects rarely overlap, but they talk often about their respective work.

"Working with my dad is very special for me – it's an experience I never thought I'd have," Nate said. "And this place has always felt like home. It's cool to be back and to be here, having an impact on something that is so central to Alaska."

Nate said he's wanted to be an engineer for as long as he can remember. His dad saw signs of his son's future career early.

"I knew he would be an engineer when he built a pneumatic potato cannon that he pressurized with his bike pump!" he said. "It's exciting to see your son grow up and make his own contributions to the operation and maintenance of TAPS. I'm proud of that kid!"

Both Carsons are eager to play their roles in driving TAPS operations into its next 40 years.

"Growing up, people talked about the pipeline and oil being on their last legs, but it's exciting for me to be here now," Nate said. "You hear about the new North Slope discoveries and look forward to what will happen in 2020 and 2021. I feel like there's a new era starting and the pipeline is about to have another growth spurt."

Bob added, "I shared a number of stories about TAPS operations with Nate over the years. More recently, I described some of the challenges we face in addressing low throughput and maintaining our 40-year-old system. He loves solving technical problems so he should have lots of opportunities here."

Pipeline Partners: R&M Consultants

You might say that Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and R&M Consultants grew up, and helped build TAPS, together.

In 1968, Ralph Migliaccio was a research geologist and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. About that time, the Trans Alaska Pipeline System consulted Migliaccio on certain geological points concerning the proposed oil pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. It wasn't long before TAPS began leaning so heavily on Migliaccio's service that he was forced to make a choice – either remain with the university or become a full-time consultant. He chose the latter and formed R&M Geological Consultants as a one-man firm in 1969.

As TAPS celebrates 40 years of operations, R&M's Andrea Story, Vice President – Marketing and Business Development, shares the equally historic evolution and Alaska legacy of her organization.

What has the success of TAPS meant to R&M Consultants?
"R&M was founded because of TAPS, and owe our 48-year history in the state to its construction. Our geotechnical work on TAPS led to R&M providing design, survey and construction supervision of the original 56 miles of the Alyeska Pipeline Haul Road, what is now known as the Dalton Highway. This particular section, extending from the Elliott Highway near Livengood north to the Yukon River, followed a design-build approach that left no time for conventional design approaches."

"Project design was initiated in June 1969, and construction engineering work was virtually completed in just over four months. This project led to R&M's long and ongoing relationship with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. 48 years later, R&M continues to work on the Dalton Highway – most recently providing professional services for the reconstruction of MP 18-37."

Tell us more about your company’s history, work and connection to Alyeska/TAPS.
"In 1969, Jim Rooney was a civil engineer specializing in cold regions geotechnics, working for the State Department of Highways. Migliaccio invited Rooney to join him at R&M. The company was initially contracted to conduct the initial subsurface soils exploration program along the proposed alternate pipeline routes. The broad objective of the project was to determine and make recommendations regarding the most feasible soil and geological conditions for the pipeline to follow from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. The entire proposed alignment was subject to a drilling program that permitted identification of soils within landforms, as well as allowing the evaluation of permafrost conditions and other pertinent geotechnical considerations."

"R&M has provided a wide range of professional services to Alyeska. In addition to our geotechnical work on the pipeline, R&M provided construction support, erosion control, revegetation, visual assessment and restoration efforts associated with pipeline construction. R&M also began to diversify, providing surveying, engineering, geotechnical, planning and environmental services on projects throughout Alaska. Most recently, R&M provided bridge inspection services to ensure the integrity of Alyeska’s bridge system."

Are there some specific highlights that embody the strong relationship between R&M and Alyeska/TAPS?
"It has been a few years since R&M has provided professional services to Alyeska, but we still hold the organization in high regard. R&M wouldn't be in existence today if not for TAPS. We still operate as a 100% Alaskan owned firm, with 30 employee shareholders, and take pride in our history, including our work on TAPS, and our legacy that still drives us to provide innovative professional services on the projects that make a real difference in the day-to-day lives of Alaskans."

In your company's perspective, what has been the impact of TAPS on Alaska and its communities?
"TAPS has had an immeasurable impact on Alaska and its communities. We are still a young state, and one whose infrastructure development would likely be far behind where it is today if not for the financial contributions of TAPS. Our roots are in oil, and Alaskans across the state recognize the importance of the contributions of Alyeska and TAPS."

Pipeline Pop Culture: Knight puts showbiz spotlight on TAPS in "Pipe Dreams"

Glamorous isn't a word associated with the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. But one of the world's most famous, talented and, yes, fabulous stars of the '70s brought TAPS construction to the bright lights of Hollywood.

Gladys Knight is best known as the "Empress of Soul," a seven-time Grammy Award winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and Motown fixture who sang R&B and pop classics like "Midnight Train to Georgia," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "That's What Friends Are For." Less known is Knight's work as an actress. At the peak of her popularity, she made her acting debut as the featured star in 1976's "Pipe Dreams." It's one glorious example of the variety of pop culture treasures inspired by the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.

Set during the wild TAPS construction days, Knight plays Maria Wilson in "Pipe Dreams."'s review sums up the film's plot: "Singing star Gladys Knight and her real-life husband, Barry Hankerson, play a couple trying to repair their broken marriage in this highly dramatic romantic adventure set against the background of the Alaskan pipeline. Hankerson must decide between reuniting with Knight or going against her wishes by giving in to the corrupt pressure of the local political boss. Knight is outstanding in her acting debut, and the soundtrack features music performed by Knight and her group, The Pips. Don't miss this incredible love story set in the spectacular landscape of Alaska!"

New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby added: "'Pipe Dreams' (is) the first film I've seen that uses the building of the Alaskan pipeline as an essential part of its action. The film … is set in Valdez, Alaska, effectively portrayed as a frozen frontier community of well-heeled, lonely construction workers and the whores and confidence artists who are after their loot."

One of the film's advertising taglines was, "When Gladys Knight sings, you feel good! When Gladys Knight stars in the most romantic movie of the year, you feel even better!" "Pipe Dreams" did not receive a feel-good response, however. The film was a box office bust, gaining little traction beyond curiosity from Knight's diehard fans.

Canby, like most reviewers, panned it. He wrote, "Stephen Verona, the writer and director of the film, displays little apparent talent in either capacity, but at least he doesn't dwell too long on the foolishness of a plot that includes one plane crash of absolutely no surprise and the inept attempts of a crooked entrepreneur to delay the pipeline's completion. … Mostly it's about Miss Knight's attempts to win back her husband who had earlier left her in Atlanta to make his fortune as an Alaskan bush pilot. Miss Knight and Mr. Hankerson are not great actors by any means, but they play well together, creating some genuinely moving and comic moments of a sort one didn't often see in old-fashioned 'B' pictures about lumber camps and gold-strike towns, which 'Pipe Dreams' faintly resembles. … Miss Knight doesn't sing onscreen but, with the Pips, she's never long off the soundtrack. A lot of the movie is used up sightseeing by air, accompanied by Miss Knight and the Pips singing a batch of songs, some of which have more plot relevance than others."

Knight wouldn't let a bad plot spoil her debut, though. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards: Knight as Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Actress and "So Sad the Song," performed by Knight and the Pips, as Best Original Song in a Motion Picture.

Finding a copy of "Pipe Dreams" is something of a, ahem, pipe dream. Rare VHS copies of the film go for as much as $60 online. The best way to tap into the "Pipe Dreams" experience is to search YouTube for clips of Knight's acting and her singing on the soundtrack.



Alyeska Community Connection: Alaska Avalanche Information Center

#TAPSPride: Alyeska retiree keeps pipeline people connected

During his 20-plus years working on TAPS, Larry Motschenbacher experienced firsthand how critical communication was to safety and success along the 800-mile pipeline.

Now as an Alyeska retiree living in Boise, Idaho, Larry Mots – as he's known to friends – still appreciates the importance of communication between Alyeska workers, present and past, near and far. Communication is at the heart of his website,, where more than 350 members share their stories and memories, photos and videos, obituaries and contact information.

"I just feel glad that I can provide this vehicle for people to connect and touch base," Larry said. "I can tell by the number of people who check the site often that it holds importance in their lives and that what's going on with other people's lives is important to them, too."

Larry, 71, is the site's mastermind, webmaster and lone funder. He spends more than 10 hours a week maintaining it and conversing with its visitors. It launched in December 2013 with just a few close Alyeska friends and fellow retirees like Ben Holeman and Bill Howitt joining him as members. "I thought even if it was just us it would be fun," Larry said.

Today, the site's members include current and former Alyeska staff and retirees who live in more than half of America's states and around the world in countries like Germany, Mexico, Peru, Thailand and the United Kingdom. It's also a place where friends and family members of TAPS workers and Alyeska staff gravitate to share memories and updates, happy or sad, of their loved ones.

"I'm a connector, perhaps," he said. "I've never advertised but people find us. I get letters from people around the world who want to get in touch with someone or commemorate someone who has passed away. It makes me feel much more responsible for doing a great job and getting the information right."

This work is important for Larry, who proudly said he personally worked with some of the site's members during his time on TAPS. In the early days of the North Slope oil boom, he completed geophysical surveys in the growing Deadhorse area.

After traveling Outside, he returned to Alaska in the early 1980s and worked for more than 20 years on TAPS, most of it in Alyeska's Engineering Department. He specialized in controls and provided support that ranged from shutdowns to IT projects.

"I felt fortunate to work with such a fine group of people – engineers, technicians and exceptional people in so many departments," he said. "At that time, a lot of people wanted to work for the pipeline. To get into that work was an honor for me."

Today, he's proud to keep those people connected. He's something of a pro at that. He said the Alyeska Pipeline People site was oddly inspired by his California high school classmates who were struggling to get their 50th reunion off the ground.

"They wanted to have a reunion but the organizer couldn't find anybody," he said. "I woke up one morning and thought I'd make a website for the class. We had one of the largest reunions ever!"

Fueled by the success of, Larry is now creating a home for a different type of TAPS memories: The new site features TAPS trinkets and swag, from T-shirts to mugs, belt buckles, buttons, hats and more.

"In the old days, a hat, shirt or decal would show up after just about any project," he said. "I wanted to capture all of that before it disappeared. This little online museum is going to be a place to bring it all together, date them and tell their story.

"When an archeologist looks at artifacts, they get to see what was important at that time, what was celebrated, what the culture was like," he added. "A lot of the stuff on the site doesn’t have much intrinsic value, but these items were important to our people at the time. It was a great company to work for and it went through a lot of growing pains and cultural growing during my time. … And there have already been several things submitted to the site that I haven't ever seen before!"

#mypipelinestory: John Baldridge

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