For the USD School of Business 40th anniversary series, I asked Professor Barbara Withers (Operations and Project Management) to write about what she was doing 40 years ago. I think you’ll agree that she earned the right to enjoy the mild winters in San Diego. You might get cold just reading her account of working at the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field in the 1970’s.
I left my job as the Regional Economist at the Municipality of Anchorage to work for ARCO Alaska, Inc. This was the part of Atlantic Richfield Company responsible for the construction of the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. This job had plenty of challenging weather: in the winter, it was really cold (minus 40° – 60°) and really dark (the sun set in October and rose again in April); in the summer, the sun stayed directly overhead for 24 hours of the day.
But the natural environment was not the most challenging part. The working and living environments were even more unusual. The job site was located on the Arctic Ocean, so transportation to and from work was by a 737 jet that landed on a gravel runway at the oil field, and, it was shift work: 7 days on, 7 days off, and 12+ hours a day. This was a male-dominated, “good old boy” culture – in the summer the work population would swell to around 10,000, of which only about 1,000 were women (this may account for the development of my assertive personality), and the mantra was “get the job done, no matter what it takes.” Housing was in a camp comprised of hundreds of construction site trailers hooked together into a giant complex, which was like living in a dorm, but with frost on the inside of the walls.
A memorable element of the oil field construction effort related to an annual event called “sealift.” The harsh weather conditions at the oil field prevented facilities from being built from the ground up. Instead, facilities were “pre-fabbed” in Tacoma, WA and barged to Prudhoe Bay each summer. Construction of these facilities in Tacoma would begin in July or August each year and continue through the year until the “sealift” the following summer. At that time the facilities (most as much as 10 stories tall and 2,500 – 4,000 tons in weight) would be moved onto barges and barged from Tacoma, around the state of Alaska, up to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. When the barges arrived at Prudhoe Bay, the facilities would be “off-loaded” and moved to their respective sites on the oil field. Completing the construction and “tying” in these facilities to pipelines, plumbing, electrical, etc. to make them operational would constitute that winter’s work at the oil field.
The logistical challenges associated with the annual sealift were unbelievable. Since the Arctic Ocean is completely ice-free for only about two weeks each summer, the sealift needed to be timed so that all of the barges arrived at Prudhoe Bay during the ice-free period. This, however, was extremely difficult because the trip from Tacoma could take from six to eight weeks, depending on the weather. That meant ARCO meteorologists (yes, ARCO had its own meteorologists) had to forecast this ice-free window six to eight weeks in advance. Once the meteorologists decided that it was time for the barges to leave Tacoma, then regardless of the stage of completion, all “pre-fab” construction work would end immediately, all remaining work materials would be thrown into containers and stored in the facilities, the facilities would be loaded onto barges, and the sealift would begin. Then, for about six weeks, we all monitored the progress of the barges to see if they would arrive before the Arctic Ocean froze.
One year, the weather didn’t cooperate. The barges were frozen into the ocean when they were about six to seven miles away from shore. This situation was a potential catastrophe for ARCO since the barges contained a year’s worth of on-site construction work that, if not completed as scheduled, would impact the oilfield’s output capacity (and hence revenues) for over a year.
So, the engineers decided to build a gravel causeway out from the shore to the barges. Fortunately, the Arctic Ocean is quite shallow (about six feet deep) for eight to ten miles from shore, so this solution was feasible but still a major challenge. Workers cut six-foot square chucks of ice from the ocean and replaced the ice with gravel until the equivalent of a four to five-lane gravel road had been built out to the barges. The off-loading of the facilities was delayed, but at least a year’s worth of on-site work was not lost. The solution to this problem is a great example of the ingenuity and determination that can be used to succeed in the business world.