The four-day shutdown of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which sent a jolt through world energy markets, pushing the price of oil up $4 a barrel in two trading days, could be a sign of things to come, according to officials.
That's because the 33-year-old pipeline could outlive its usefulness, unless new sources of oil are developed in northern Alaska.
The flow of oil through the 800-mile pipeline was partially restored late Tuesday. Officials hope to have it fully restored in a matter of days, with another brief shutdown to install a bypass around a leak at a pumping station that led to the initial shutdown. The pipeline is now running at a rate of around 400,000 barrels per day.
But even at full strength, currently around 650,000 barrels per day, the flow is a fraction of what it once was. At its peak in the late 1980s, the pipeline carried more than 2 million barrels per day. It was designed to carry 1.5 million per day, according to Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, the consortium that owns and operates the line.
With the flow decreasing by around 5 percent a year, officials say it could soon become impractical to operate the system, both because of engineering and economics.