A 400-square-mile oil field, Prudhoe Bay has become synonymous with the wealth that Alaska experienced in the 1970s. After discovery of oil in 1968 by ARCO, the eleven companies owning leases selected ARCO and BP to operate the field jointly on their behalf. BP controls the western half, and ARCO the eastern. There are four additional oil fields currently in production, all connected to Prudhoe Bay and all feeding oil into the pipeline.
All of the facilities and roads are constructed on gravel pads, which provide a solid base while insulating the permafrost. Wells are clustered on these pads, and drilled outward. Untreated oil is sent to the gathering center (in BP's terminology) or flow station (ARCO's) where the oil, gas, and water are separated. The oil goes to the pipeline, where it travels the 800 miles to Valdez. Liquid gas is also sent in the pipeline, while other gas is reinjected into the oil reservoir. Water, too, is reinjected, to maintain pressure in the reservoir and to enhance recovery.
At Prudhoe, the work force numbers between five thousand and six thousand, most working for contractors to the two oil companies. At BP and ARCO, most people work a twelve-hour day, seven-day week, rotating off for seven days. No one lives permanently at Prudhoe; instead, the companies provide transportation to Barrow, Fairbanks, or Anchorage for the weeks off. Single bedrooms are shared by counterparts on the other shift. BP and ARCO have approached the construction of their residential facilities slightly differently, and both have adjusted their approaches over time.
The main operations centers were prefabricated Outside and barged to Prudhoe Bay. The port is ice free only three weeks a year, necessitating a carefully planned sea lift to unload all the pieces, and in the right order. They were then “crawled,” using bulldozer-type tracks, to the site.
The stresses that the modular units received during barging and crawling were greater than those at the site. Once installed, wind was of more concern than cold, as heat is generated at the oil fields and is essentially a free commodity. Although snow accumulation is not a problem because of the wind, drifting can be. Most drifting snow travels close to the ground, so the buildings are elevated to permit snow to blow under them. The cold climate and long hours of darkness have resulted in an interior focus. The operations centers contain control facilities for oil production, offices, and maintenance facilities, as well as residential, dining, and recreation areas, so that many people live and work in the same building. The self-sufficiency of the operations centers lends them a futuristic or unearthly quality.
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