When Atlantic Richfield prospectors struck oil at Prudhoe Bay early in 1968, they stumbled upon the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. Getting that oil out of Alaska would take nine years, employ some 78,000 people, cost more than $8 billion, and require threading 800 miles of steel pipe through America’s most pristine wilderness.
American Experience presents The Alaska Pipeline, a one-hour documentary from producer Mark Davis. “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline changed just about everything and everyone it touched,” says Davis, “from the people who opposed it to the people who supported it, the people who built it, and the state of Alaska.”
Oil companies with holdings at Prudhoe Bay formed a company called Alyeska to build and operate the pipeline. But before the first mile of pipe could be laid, the project ran into unexpected opposition. Native Alaskans had been waiting more than a century for Congress to settle ancestral land claims. Since the proposed pipeline would run directly through land they considered theirs, they believed that the government should settle their claims before construction began. Another formidable challenge came from environmentalists, who feared that the colossal project would wreak havoc on America’s last untouched wilderness. In April 1970, Native Alaskans and environmentalists both sued in federal court to block government approval of the pipeline.