Pipe Nightmare

In 1974, workers began construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (now better known as the “Alaska Pipeline”), an 800 mile oil pipeline running from oil wells in Prudhoe Bay to Alaska’s north, all the way down to Valdez, Alaska in the south. Construction cost $8 billion, took over three years and resulted in the deaths of nearly three dozen workers. The pipeline carries about a million barrels of oil southward each day, and, since its completion, has shipped more than 15 billion barrels of oil in total.

The pipeline stretches across Alaska and, in most places, is in areas which have low populations and little in the way of infrastructure. It was designed to withstand forest fires and earthquakes — as a precaution, it was shut down after a 7.9 magnitude quake hit Denali National Park, but did not rupture. But its relative remoteness, combined with the sheer size of the pipeline, makes it difficult — to say the least — to keep it secure. So the pipeline is at risk from big explosions, well-coordinated sabotage attempts, and, drunken morons like the tastefully named Daniel Carson Lewis.

On October 4, 2001, Mr. Lewis proved, while his parents may have been connoisseurs of baby names (or, at least, pairing first names with the family surname), that wisdom skipped a generation. His rap sheet already included charges of theft, burglary, drunk driving, and weapons violations. But that day, he’d accidentally add criminal mischief and oil pollution to that list. At roughly 2:30 in the afternoon, Daniel Carson Lewis defiled his good name (or, what was left of it) and took five shots at the pipeline with his rifle. One of his bullets hit a weld — a joint where two pipe sections had been welded together. While the pipeline is covered by a layer of galvanized steel which is typically resistant to gunshots, the joint was a weak point. It burst open and oil came rushing out, at the rate of 140 gallons per minute according to the Associated Press.

In total, over six thousand barrels leaked out of the pipeline due to Lewis’s crime; roughly 4,000 of them were recovered. The damage to the pipeline required it to be shut down for two and a half days, delaying nearly three million barrels of oil. Two acres of tundra were damaged by Lewis’s drunken riflery. Lewis was sentenced to sixteen years in prison and ordered to pay for the cleanup costs, totaling $17 million, which, of course, he will almost certainly never be able to afford.

Sadly, he was not forced to change his name.


Bonus fact: Penguins, like many birds, preen — that is, they clean their feathers with their beak. When a penguin is covered in oil due to an oil spill, this causes a particularly grave problem, as the penguins end up eating caked-on oil during the preening process. The solution? As ABC News reported in reference to the 2011 New Zealand oil spill, penguin sweaters. (That article has a picture, but here’s a photo gallery with a lot more, plus a kitten.)

From the ArchivesOil Baron: Involves oil and prison sentences.

RelatedA penguin sweater for a dog. A must-see if there ever was one.