March 12, 1968: Oil discovered at Prudhoe Bay


This weekend Alaskans wait to learn if the Biden Administration will allow two or three drill pads at the Willow Project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. But it was this weekend 54 years ago that oil was discovered at on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay.

Just four years after the Great Alaska Earthquake, which occurred on March 27, 1964, Alaska was still in a rebuilding mode, with construction and reconstruction underway in Southcentral, which took the brunt of the magnitude 9.2 quake.

Up on the North Slope, the largest oil field ever discovered in North America was being drilled at Well #1. The well, drilled by Atlantic Richfield Company and Humble Oil and Refining Company, was confirmed the following year by BP Exploration. A frenzy of growth and development in Alaska ensued as other companies with leases on the North Slope raced to get ready for production. The Prudhoe Bay field became the 18th largest field discovered worldwide. At that time, Alaska’s population was only 285,000.

Prudhoe oil had to wait, however, until the Trans Alaska Pipeline was built to Valdez, which took another nine years. Oil finally flowed in 1977, and by 1979, about 1.5 million barrels were making their way down the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. That rate remained steady until about 1989, when the fields started to slow down.

By 2004, only about 475,000 barrels per day were being produced, and by 2020, the amount was down to 448,000 barrels per day, the lowest level of production since 1976.

25 billion barrels have come through the TAPS system from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and the world market beyond. While in 1988 it took 4.5 days for oil to travel the 800-mile pipe, it now takes 18 days.

Fifty-four years after oil was discovered, Alaskans are waiting to see if the president will allow them to continue to send oil down the pipeline, or if he intends to shut it down by starving it of product.

On Friday, the White House leaked the news that President Biden would approve the ConocoPhillips project called Willow, which is on the edge of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. His press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, walked it back later that day and said no decision has been made, but that when an announcement comes, it will be from the Interior Department, not the White House.

Alaska depends on oil for its economy, but also for its very survival. In 2020, Alaska consumed more petroleum for electricity generation than any state except Hawaii, according to the Energy Information Association. Oil supplies 16% of Alaska’s utility-scale generation, the third most of any generation source behind natural gas (38%) and hydroelectric power (31%). One-third of the state’s households rely on petroleum products such as fuel oil, kerosene, or propane for heating.

Fun fact: Prudhoe Bay was named by British explorer Sir John Franklin after his classmate and friend Captain Algernon Percy, Baron Prudhoe.

Baron Prudhoe

Franklin traveled along the north coast in 1826 from the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Canada almost to Point Barrow in search of the Northwest Passage. There is no indication that Baron Prudhoe, 4th Duke of Northumberland, ever made the trip.


  1. Yes Alaska consumes lots of fuel. Every village runs big generators for power. So if they voted for Mary then they need their fuel supply stopped. The state subsidizes fuel cost with permit, fun, money, and state taxes. We all pay for this fuel for the villages. We need cheap oil.

  2. Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, broke the tie in the Senate allowing TAPS to be built and quashed any further legal suits by the environmentalists at the time. The only thing that has changed is the enviros have become more determined to stop any and all resource extraction, our life blood. Shutting down the pipeline would be a huge victory for them.

    • Enviros use as much oil, gas, and coal as anyone else. But they produce much more gas……..
      huge flatulations from granola bars, dried fruit beans.

  3. So, will Bidens handlers let him throw us a bone, or will he just slap our delegation in the face? It doesn’t matter either way because the whole intent is to gradually starve TAPS until it’s dry, which I believe will be by 2035-2040. What’s sad is that there isn’t and probably won’t be any viable source of income to support the state, with the exception of the dividend and income taxes. This is why our state legislators have been weaning us off the PFD since 2016.

  4. Those were heady years for the oil industry and those of us who made our living working for them….Cook Inlet was in full bloom with Collier Carbon and Chemical, Marathon LNG, platforms in cook, inlet trading bay production facilities. Natural gas discoveries on the Kenai that led to gas line across the Kenai mouse flats and the arm to Potter to feed Anchorage. ( I am not sure such a line could be built today because resistance from enviros groups) The Petro Chemical industry on the Kenai was packed with high paying jobs and laid the foundations for Kenai/Soldotna we know today…The Susitna River Hydro project planning was well underway and should have gone forward even before Bradley Hydro but severl mis-guided officials desided it would not be needed with all this new gas but they were wrong and had we built at least phase one of Susitna a gas line from Cook Inlet would have been built to the Interior years ago for heating and other uses and our conversations about Energy would have been much different today, and Alaska a much better place to live and work.

  5. I remember my Father coming home from work and announcing that evidently there was a huge oil gusher discovered at someplace called Prudhoe Bay.

    Funny looking back at how much that discovery has changed Alaska. Those of us that built the Pipeline understand the enormity of the undertaking of its construction.

    Funnier still is how a former Mayor of Baltimore gave us the Pipeline in 1973 and now in 2023 an idiot from Delaware is trying to take it away.

  6. Greg, John Butrovich often told me that his Father obsevered oil in pools when he walked from St Mary’s up through the Brooks Range and to the Arctic Ocean near Prudhoe in 1898.

    It was common knowledge that there was oil present but the drilling program proved its reserves. Oil companies didn’t pay 900 million bucks to the State for leases in the late sixties based upon a pool or two on the surface.

  7. Arco lake #1 drill pad on the Sag River was my assignment in 1969 as a first time Bullcook with Universal Services inc. lasted 5 or 6 weeks working 7-12s making beds and washing pots and pans!! Made unbelievable paychecks and ate incredible food!! Recreation was a record player and one pool table in the Atco trailers joined together to make our living quarters. Armed and mean guards at the single access road to the pad. Rubbed shoulders with drillers, roustabouts rec who talked about jobs they had been on around the globe!! Paid for a full semester at a private college with my summer earnings that fall back in No Dak.

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