Walking the Line

It’s Friday and I’m off on holiday for a week’s skiing in the Alps. Blogging will be light to non-existent, as time permits. So for now I’ll leave you with this tale of an experience I had in my mid-twenties, back in the days when I still believed a career lay in front of me.

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?” I asked Larry, my fellow engineer.

“Just go and have a look, write down what you see, and submit a report,” he replied. “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“The client doesn’t like it?”

“Yes, but they’ll tell you why they don’t like it, and tell you what they want to see instead. So you go back and do exactly that, re-submit it, and they’ll think it’s great.”

Larry had been around the consulting world a long time. I once asked him how many US states he’d been to, and he said he’d worked in 48 of them. He’d been in Iran when the Revolution happened, Libya when the Americans bombed it, and Syria when sanctions were imposed leaving foreign workers without much to eat. If I were a government official checking Larry through immigration on a work visa, I’d start preparing for either war or regime change. But now he was telling me how I should inspect a pipeline.

Truth is, none of us had a clue. None of us had a clue about any of what we were supposed to do, which put us about the same level as our client, who had no clue either. Several months before, we’d all been mobilised to the Middle East ostensibly to carry out a risk assessment on various facilities scattered around the desert, some of which had been there since the 1960s. The idea was to identify what work would need to be done to make the national oil company work like BP. In hindsight, the answer was obvious: privatise it, fire all the staff, and replace them with competent people. I suspect our client knew this but turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and reverse anti-colonialism is rarely popular even in places where telegraph poles fall over onto people’s heads, so they tasked us to come up with a more technological answer.

To be fair we started enthusiastically enough, but after a few days we realised nobody was turning up to our meetings and workshops any more: the novelty of having a few foreigners around had worn off, and there was idling to be done. Motivation disappeared altogether when I opened a drawer of a long-disused desk in the corner of the office we were shoved in, and discovered a bulky report some five years old with exactly the same title as the study we were currently doing. I thumbed through it and found the authors’ scope was identical to ours, and their conclusions much the same. Whatever the reason was behind us being hired, it wasn’t to tell our client anything they didn’t already know.

But right now I had a pipeline to inspect and I didn’t know how until I asked Larry. The pipeline was a six-inch gas flowline chosen as representative of all the company flowlines, and the idea was I’d ascertain its condition. I first went to the inspection department who showed me an impressive document detailing the inspection regime, but alas they couldn’t tell me when in the line’s thirty year life it had actually been inspected, let alone provide me with results. So they helpfully suggested I make a visual inspection, adding that “it’s only buried in places”.

From what I could tell from the drawings the line ran from a gathering centre a couple of miles away to another facility near where our offices were. I reckoned I could go out one morning before it got too hot and simply walk along the pipeline route and see whatever I could see. Everyone agreed this was a splendid idea, although I doubt anyone truly believed I could determine the pipeline’s condition using this method. They were just glad someone was taking ownership of the task, and that included the client.

The next morning around 7am Larry drove me out to the gathering centre and left me there. I reckoned I could be back by lunchtime, which was around 11am. It was already quite warm and I was wearing a polo-shirt, light jeans, and a pair of trainers. I also had the obligatory cap and sunglasses, and I brought with me a bottle of water. I had no trouble finding the start of the line and following it to where it went underground and beneath the perimeter fence. I also had no trouble picking it up on the other side, and I happily walked alongside it for about a mile thinking this was one of the easier jobs I’d done in my life. Then it went underground and it took me a while to find where it re-emerged. Eventually I did, and I followed it some more. Insofar as its condition was concerned, it looked to be made of metal and cylindrical. I didn’t see any rust which was unsurprising given the place experiences scorching heat and no rain whatsoever for all but a few days per year. This probably explained why they’d not painted it. Sometimes it would go underground to pass under a road or culvert, and they’d protect it from the highly corrosive soil by wrapping it in what looked like bandages soaked in coal tar. This was a common way of protecting buried pipes until they reckoned coal tar was carcinogenic and they quit using it. Half of these wrappings were torn off and lying in shreds, barely connected to the pipe, and so I earnestly noted this important detail on the scrap of paper that would become my integrity report.

Then I lost the pipe again. It simply disappeared underground and never came up, even though the drawing said it should be around there somewhere. It took me about twenty minutes of searching the dusty, gravelly terrain to find it hundreds of metres away, after which I continued my walk alongside it. At some point I came across an odd-looking valve, which had no handle. Instead there was a square spigot onto which you’d fix one, or a wrench of some kind. I thought it was a peculiar design for a gas line, and in a rather strange location. The pipeline route was taking me towards the main road we took across the oilfield each day, which surprised me a bit because the drawing didn’t indicate that. Still, I followed it. Soon I was walking parallel to the road, right alongside. I was still in the middle of nowhere.

A small structure appeared up ahead and as I approached the pipeline suddenly turned skywards, then turned horizontal, then vertically downwards, and came to an abrupt stop. A long canvas sock was hanging from its end, swaying in the hot wind that blew non-stop across the desert. This was no gas line. It was a water line. Somehow I’d lost one and picked up the other. Feeling rather foolish, I looked to the horizon at the gathering centre and briefly considered retracing my steps. Then I decided nobody would know, and wouldn’t care if they did.

I flagged down a car, caught a lift back to our offices, and wrote up the report. I said the line appeared to be in reasonable condition but could use another inspection just to make sure and this should be done within a year. The client commented that my report was “too generic” and lacked specifics, but they were otherwise satisfied with what I’d done.

I was wrong on one thing. I said nobody would know, but I told everyone because I thought it was funny. So did they. The bit I got right was that they didn’t care.


16 thoughts on “Walking the Line

  1. I did an almost identical job for BP in Shetland…it was little more than a (badly) paid holiday wandering around pipelines.

  2. I audited a joint venture lube oil blending plant in China for one of the oil majors. That seemed to have no HSE plan at all. So we asked them to fire up the water spray ring around the top of an oil tank. Took about 20 minutes to get the thing working and alot of hilarity / confusion about how the pumps actually worked ensued. They’d have fried if it was for real. So then we asked for a hosepipe to be got going from a hydrant. Hydrant needed a giant wrench to open and the toolshed was locked. Confusion. Panic. Eventually they got the hose attached and the pump pumping about another 20 mins later. A little guy on the end of the hose held tight and just took off! Flying around like somehting in a cartoon. I nearly wet myself laughing. And then BOOM! The hose exploded violently. Turns out they had bought firehoses only rated to a pressure well below the pressure the pumps actually delivered because they were cheaper! FFS. Would never have even got a green light to start operations in this country.

  3. I am a bit surprised that you didn’t report what you found, I had you down as a straight shooter.

  4. “Blogging will be light to non-existent, as time permits.”

    I honestly read this at first as “Bragging will be light to non-existent, as time permits” because you had said you were going on a ski-ing holiday. Now while my preference would not be for a slowish descent down a mountain in freezing conditions I accept some people like this sort of thing. And they like to tell everyone what they are doing.

    But a word of caution: be careful not to ski into any pipelines. Have fun!

  5. Commissioning of a new plant was going too slowly and I was dragged in to help out. “I’m busy with my XYZ report.” “Tough: we need you.” I got my five minutes of training and set off to follow a small line that would be carrying methanol to be used for dissolving any hydrates that formed. (At least I knew what a hydrate was, which impressed my new colleagues no end.) An isolation valve at the business end of the line high at the top of a distillation column was jammed: a wheel-dog and brute force couldn’t shift it. It was daylight hours so there would have been hell to pay if I’d been caught trying to use, or even carry, grown-up tools. So I tagged it, climbed the long way down to the ground, and went off to find the fitter supervisor. I explained that I needed a chap up there to free off the valve. He said, by way of refusal, “What, in this wind?”

    I’ve probably told you this story before but it still makes me grin. The pre-Thatcher unionised working man was a bit of an arsehole, wasn’t he?

  6. I am a bit surprised that you didn’t report what you found, I had you down as a straight shooter.

    I did report what I found, I just left out the part about the gooseneck section and the realisation that it was a water line. It was as representative of the pipelines in the area as any other, I reckon.

    Besides, I am a straight shooter until I arrive at the point where it’s obvious nobody is taking things seriously and I’m the only one even pretending to. Then I really don’t give a damn. This happens more often than you’d think.

  7. I honestly read this at first as “Bragging will be light to non-existent, as time permits” because you had said you were going on a ski-ing holiday.

    Aw c’mon, I live in France. Going skiing here is something wholly unremarkable (and I think most of my readers know I have a den in Annecy).

  8. Presumably you’re skiing in the French alps. If it’s by chance in the Swiss alps, give me a shout.

  9. “Yes, but they’ll tell you why they don’t like it, and tell you what they want to see instead. So you go back and do exactly that, re-submit it, and they’ll think it’s great.”

    Been there, done that. Lots of times.

    It goes on… Now my nephew has an enjoyable and lucrative career, jetting about the world inspecting pipelines.

  10. Patrick; Ive had to do stuff with the Chinese myself, between them pinching stainless steel pipe to make support structures (which had already been purchased and built separately), to removing and inspecting everything at customs, then failing to repack it properly so that it arrived at site smashed to buggery, nothing would surprise me! My one victory was to get low temperature carbon steel used on a gas line because flashing of the gas through the control loop would have put the line at risk of fracturing. I got the idea accepted by pointing out that a fracture would unfailingly kill everyone in the village through which it passed, and that I refused to have my name on that, though I was perfectly happy for the Chinese boss to have his name on it- material spec changed.

  11. Jeez… I now have much less faith in the world’s infrastructure. More proof that half-assery is contagious.

    After spending 15 years in the oil business, I’ve reached the conclusion standards are fast becoming very low or non-existent. I’m just waiting to see where they bottom out.

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