Visionary Leadership and American Energy


On this day in economic and financial history...

Energy panics have a way of forcing rapid action in an ordinarily sluggish government. Just one month after OPEC began a crippling oil embargo on the United States on Nov. 16, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act into law. His signature plowed through any environmental and legal objections, clearing the way for the pipeline's construction and the widespread exploration of oil in the Last Frontier.

Nixon's signing sent a brief spark of hope through the markets, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) closed with a 2% gain after enduring a 10% slide following the start of the embargo. It wouldn't last, as the deep bear market of the early 1970s would continue for another year.

The pipeline -- the largest construction project in the world at that point with an estimated cost of $8 billion -- would be built by a consortium of oil companies known as the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Their names and ownership stakes at the time of the signing were: Atlantic Richfield, with 28%; Standard Oil of Ohio (in which BP (NYS: BP) held a controlling interest), with 28%; Exxon, with 26%; Mobil, with 9%; Phillips, with 3%; Union Oil, with 3%; and Amerada Hess at 3%. Today, following a series of mergers, acquisitions, and sales, BP holds 47% control due to its acquisition of Atlantic Richfield. ConocoPhillips (NYS: COP) holds 28%, and ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) holds 20%.

The pipeline had a transformative effect on the Alaskan economy. The state's oil production as a percentage of total American output peaked at 25% in 1988, and in 2011 the 209 million barrels of oil produced in Alaska made up about 10% of total American oil production. More than 16 billion barrels of oil have gone through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline since it first became operational.

As with any major oil and gas development, the pipeline and its connected fields have a finite lifetime. Production was peaked at 2 million barrels per day in 1988 but has since shrunk by 63%. The Alaska Resource Development Council estimates that some $60 billion may be needed to stave off steeper declines and develop new oil sources for the pipeline. To counteract the gradual declines in Alaskan oil production that now appear inevitable, a new Alaska Natural Gas Pipeline has been proposed at a cost of between $30 billion to $40 billion. If it's completed, this natural-gas pipeline will take the crown as the largest such construction project in the world.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
Steve Jobs called it "a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life." He also suggested that Bill Gates would have benefited from it. If you've ever seen Pirates of Silicon Valley, you probably know what "it" is. It is lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, first synthesized on Nov. 16, 1938.

This isn't to suggest that Apple (NAS: AAPL) wouldn't exist without Steve Jobs' experimentation. But it might be an unrecognizable company to those who've grown up with sleek iDevices. Think...different.

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