Technology, dedicated people underpinned BP’s long run in Alaska

I’m among the baby boomers who built their 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 once wrote the following report on the startup of the Prudhoe Bay field. I offer it here because I think it’s 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 the words above, 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.

“We had some wells with pressures of 2,000 p.s.i. and higher,” Blythe recalls. “Well F-2, for example, was producing at 23,000 barrels per day. One of our wells on D-pad, D-5, was so strong that the thermal expansion popped it right out of the flowline bundle. We were careful not to open the chokes too much, because we could easily over-pressure our equipment.”

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.

“There was friendly competition with ARCO, operator of the eastern side of the field,” says Smagge. “We were trying to see who could get their oil into Pump Station 1 first. I think we beat them by a shave.”

Eyes from across Alaska, the nation and as far as London were focused on Prudhoe Bay during the critical startup phase.

“We had a desk full of telephones,” recalls Lowry Brott, who not too many years ago retired after a 40-year career with BP. “We were connected to everyone — Pump Station 1, ARCO, Valdez, Anchorage, even Cleveland and London. The company had heavily extended itself financially to build the trans-Alaska pipeline and get Prudhoe developed. Because of the permitting delays in getting the pipeline built, folks were very interested in getting oil flowing as soon as possible.”

The oil front arrived at the Valdez Marine Terminal uneventfully late on the evening of July 28, and the first tanker load left for the U.S. West Coast on August 1. “It was an exciting time,” reflects Jim Gilroy, who was a production superintendent and now retired from BP. “Everything was new. We were moving into uncharted territory.”

Early days in the oil patch: During visits to Prudhoe Bay in the 1980s, often as a tour guide, one of my favorite pastimes at night was to sit in the operations center and chat with the production controllers. ARCO’s oil wells were on the eastern side of the Prudhoe Bay field and BP’s were on the west. But at the time, BP controlled the flow rates for wells on both sides. For me, the controllers were like rock stars, seated in front of colorful displays with power at their fingertips to monitor and remotely control so many oil wells — some at that time capable of flowing at more than 25,000 barrels per day.

During days, some of the tours I conducted included celebrities such as Walter Cronkite, John Kenneth Galbraith and John Denver. But the most memorable person was Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico, 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.”

Watching the industry grow: 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—unheard of for supergiant oil fields. And it’s believed the field has yet to yield another billion barrels.

Along with Prudhoe Bay facility expansions and enhanced oil recovery programs came the development of other fields such as Kuparuk, Lisburne, Endicott, Northstar, Milne Point, Badami, Point Thomson and others, including several satellite fields. Oil from these fields helped slow the overall North Slope production decline caused by the big Prudhoe field’s natural decline.

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.

Over the years, I met most of BP’s people because I wrote about them: the geologists, engineers, geophysicists, geoscientists, environmental scientists, administrative staff, attorneys, information technology folks, production operators, fire and medical personnel and other emergency responders; drillers, field maintenance crews, miscellaneous field hands and executive management, from Anchorage to London.

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.

Finally, I wish the very best to those with BP and its contractors who are facing an uncertain future; and to Hilcorp Energy Company, which is now poised to create a new era in Alaska’s history.

A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. He retired from BP in 2007 and worked as a contractor for the company until 2017.

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