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The 48-inch trans-Alaska oil pipeline is truly the man-made wonder of the Last Frontier, traversing 800 miles (or 1300 km) of frozen tundra, boreal forest, 800 rivers and streams, three major earthquake faults and three rugged mountain ranges. The corridor includes more than 550 wildlife crossings for moose, caribou and other wildlife. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company completed the pipeline in 1977 at a cost of $8 billion for the two-year project, the largest privately funded construction effort at that time. The Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was built as a means of transporting crude oil from the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope to the marine and northern most ice-free port in Valdez, where it is loaded aboard tankers for the journey to U.S. refineries. During the peak of construction, over 28,000 people were employed by Alyeska and its contractors. TAPS carries approximately 15 percent of the nation's domestic oil production.
In the case of this pipeline, much of the ground is underlain by permanently frozen ground or permafrost. Heat from the oil which comes out of the ground at 65-85 degrees C would thaw the frozen soil if the pipeline was buried, causing the pipe to buckle and break. For this reason, more than half of the pipeline is built above ground. Where it is buried, the pipe is embedded in a deep ditch, insulated with gravel padding and covered with dirt and in cases of road crossings, the buried line is also refrigerated to prevent thawing.
The pipeline has become an attraction for visitors from around the world. Many independent travelers as well as tour groups visit the pipeline viewing point, 10 miles north of Fairbanks in Fox at MP 8 on the Steese Highway. The pipeline is also visible along the Dalton Highway to the north (formerly known as the Haul Road) and the Richardson Highway to the south.
A section of the pipeline and a multi-media presentation about TAPS can be seen at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks.
While private vehicles are not allowed to drive past Deadhorse to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields or the Arctic Ocean, access can be gained through a tour company.