Hunting Unicorns

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Sometimes you just need a laugh. Winter just drags on and on. The narcissistic and clueless antics of celebrities used to be good for a laugh. I usually kept up to date on their peccadillos by scanning the cover of People magazine at the check-out stand. But now our celebrities mistake themselves for Polish Jews being herded into the ghetto, seeing cadres of Einsatzgruppen every time their Tesla in the “special” lane sweeps past a Ford F-150 stuck in traffic. Celebrity culture is the same swampy flatulence as always, it just isn’t as funny as it used to be.

The “serious” media is no longer sane, having been gripped by a hunger for something. Pulitzer Prizes? Seemingly seized by what can only be described as erotic dreams of Woodward/Bernstein celebrity, they imagine themselves speaking truth to power when in fact they simply cheer lead for the increasingly corrupt status quo. I used to watch late night TV, Conan or SNL, but to a man (or woman) they have become a pale imitation of the USO, playing to The Resistance in the bunkered echo chambers of the elite. Baseball is still a month away. I have a chest/nasal something or other that has hung on since mid-December. I need relief.

Living in the land of the Adorables as I do is pleasant. I guess that’s why the Adorables live here too. Nobody ever said they were not sensible people when it comes to material comfort. The food is good, the houses are warm and I don’t have to go outside into the cold if I don’t want to. Most of the time, I can do a believable imitation of Adorableness without too much effort. After all, I have decades of practice at it. It’s not so hard to ignore the smug condescension, to pretend to believe, to ignore the obvious. After all that is the fate of any occupied population.

In the darkness of a humorless winter, there is a remembered joy, an unrestrained laughter, in the rough humor allowed when free of the confines of Adorable society. The need to avoid hurtful speech or behavior can be a heavy load to bear, particularly as winter drags on. The winter of the spirit grows heaviest during the winter of the calendar. There is a rough humor allowed in teams of men spending time in close quarters engaged in difficult tasks. Retirement has removed me from the rough humor of the project team, the construction team. In the long months of winter, I miss that humor, at least those times when I was not its butt. Or even worse, when I had to go out in the cold.

To build pipelines is to be constantly amused. There is slapstick, there is irony, there is satire, there is incongruity. It must be said, however, that the amusement on a pipeline project is best appreciated by those paid by the hour. For those at financial risk, the Owners or the Owner’s employees, building pipelines veers between tragedy and financial ruin like a drunken driver caught on a steep and narrow ice slicked mountain road.

In the grip of winter, drifting into time’s passages in a country where they’ve turned back time (Apologies to Al Stewart), I remember the Houston Toad. The Houston Toad is said to be a charming little amphibian, reputed to live in the pine forests of East Texas. For those who have never been there, East Texas is deep in the heart of Deplorable country. However before a stereotyped image forms in your mind, it must be said that East Texas is also the home turf of the Clinton’s.

The Houston Toad, by all accounts, is an important species of amphibian, critical to the struggle to Save the Earth. Some twenty years ago, I spent a large part of two years of my life doing yeoman duty as the project manager for a pipeline being built through the land of the elusive Houston Toad.

The business people, the Owners of the pipeline, thought we were building a natural gas pipeline and its associated facilities. The business people thought the purpose of this one hundred mile long pipeline was to move natural gas from the wellhead to market. At least that was the reason given on the spending authorization letter to the Board of Directors back in the Owner’s offices. But everyone actually on the ground in Palestine, Texas knew the pipeline was simply a cover story, a convenient ruse to raise the money for the project’s true mission, to search out the Houston Toad,  to give the Houston Toad aid and comfort.

I noted earlier that the Houston Toad was reputed to live in the pine forests of East Texas. Some might think that the snide and needlessly hurtful remark of a Toad Denier, but it wasn’t intended that way. Even today, I believe it an honest assessment of a complicated truth. No one, at the time or even today, can claim to speak with absolute certainty. Word on the street, then and now, has it that the last Houston Toad in the wilds of East Texas was sighted in the 1940’s. It is said that the Houston Zoo had a breeding population of Houston Toad’s in captivity, but for reasons to be made clear later, I believe this to be wishful speculation open to controversy.

But whether the Houston Toad was simply another species of unicorn familiar to pipeline permitting or simply a shy amphibian, it didn’t matter. The pipeline, like every other pipeline, needed a plethora of permits to be constructed. That plethora of permits required elevating the needs of the Houston Toad to an existential need. The pipeline could not be built anywhere near where the Houston Toad lived. Or wanted to live. Or might live. Or theoretically could live. The fate of the pipeline was inextricably bound together with the manners and customs of the Houston Toad.

So it fell to us to make our part of East Texas safe for the Houston Toad, to seek it out and provide sanctuary against the evil schemes of deplorable men. It was our assigned task, our solemn duty as righteous human beings, to avoid building the pipeline anywhere the Houston Toad lived, or wanted to live, or might live, or theoretically could live. To properly carry out this sacred duty, we had to locate where the Houston Toad actually lived, or wanted to live, or . . well you get the idea.

Easy enough to say, but it turns out to be a surprisingly difficult task, a Rubik’s Cube of engineering and permitting if you will. Given that no one had seen a Houston Toad living in the wild for fifty years, the manners and customs, let alone necessary living spaces, of the Houston Toad were a matter of some speculation, rather like a conclave of cardinals meeting in cloistered assembly to decide the precise number of angels able to dance on the head of a pin.

But not to worry, I was an experienced pipeline project manager, at least that is what it said on my resume when I was hired. As an experienced pipeline project manager, I had learned through hard experience that the secret to solving problems is writing checks. I hasten to add that experienced pipeline project managers always use Other People’s Money (OPM) when writing checks. There are few problems that can’t be solved by spreading a little money around in the right places. Of course, the phrase “a little money” is a relative term. A really good pipeline project manager has a team of local advisors discretely aware of the right places to send the checks and the right amounts of “a little money”.

Back to the theological investigation into angels and the heads of pins, i.e. what are the manners and customs of the Houston Toad? Obviously this was a question for learned men and women, properly credentialed men and women. It was immediately obvious to me as an amateur, a layman without degree or credentials, that I needed expert help. To the ignorant eyes of a layman, our pipeline route appeared to traverse one hundred miles of unbroken prime toad habitat, as well as prime habitat for frogs, snakes, alligators, creepy crawly things of every description. Toads, as well as a profusion of other amphibian/reptilian life, seemed underfoot everywhere. Of course, as the learned consultants took pains to point out, if the Houston Toad had not been seen for fifty years, then it obviously required a very special garden in the midst of what appeared to be prime toad habitat stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction.

In our first and last stroke of good luck, we learned that another pipeline had been built in the area just a few months before. Thus a properly blessed and sanctified specification for Houston Toad habitat existed. Otherwise I would have been required to write a number of checks, underwriting a serious investigation by credentialed academics into the required living arrangements for hypothetical toads.

When pipeline projects are required to fund basic scientific investigation by credentialed environmental consultants, pipeline project managers are plagued with sleepless nights of stormy dreams. We have nightmares of endless days spent hosting tea parties, supplied with ample amounts of cupcakes, for moppets hammering out the precise details of the care and feeding of unicorns. To my great relief, another pipeline manager had carried out this thankless task, saving me the sleepless nights. But now, armed with a doctrinal statement on unicorns, blessed by a conclave of cardinals, I was tasked to find these unique and special locations in the trackless forested swamps of East Texas.

Actually this task is a straightforward one, although expensive and cumbersome in the extreme. Each square inch of the entire pipeline route, a patchwork of pine forest, swamp and pasture a few hundred yards wide and over a hundred miles long is searched. Properly trained people examine some 500 million square feet of dirt, grass, swamp, etc. stretching over 100 miles looking for Houston Toads. Or where Houston Toads wanted to live. Or might live. Or theoretically could live.

As you can imagine, this investigation involves a lot of walking by a lot of people. To properly investigate this area, these people doing the walking and investigating can’t be just anybody you hired on the corner of Home Depot’s parking lot for day work. (Actually they can be and sometimes are, but they must also have the proper credentials. It seems that anything less than a PhD in Biology limits the graduate holders of these lesser degrees to entry positions in retail and hospitality.) The people doing the searching have to be experts on Houston Toads and other unicorns. Otherwise how would they know if they saw one, or . . .

Do not underestimate the complexity of the logistics required to search this immense area. Most of this land being searched is a patchwork of small private holdings in the backwoods of East Texas. It may not surprise you to learn that the people doing the walking are scientists even if their day job is at Home Depot. They are prone to wander off the pipeline right of way when they see interesting things. It may not surprise you to learn that the owners of the land being searched really don’t like their land being searched. You might make a guess about their feelings for wandering scientists on their land looking for endangered species of unicorns. Landowners, often ex-military, sometimes greet people searching in unexpected places while carrying well-used weapons. This is the East Texas backwoods. It is a volatile situation.

One cannot build a pipeline without a little of the scuttlebutt about bugs and bunnies rubbing off on uncouth engineers such as myself. I have always been an avid listener to the whispered word on the street. This proved to be true in East Texas as well. As I learned in those spare moments chatting up the latest batch of experts, the Houston Toad looks just like its close cousin, the American Toad. But in marked contrast to the Houston Toad, the American Toad lives just about everywhere and anywhere. In fact the American Toad is one of the most common toads in America. The two are such close cousins that only experts can tell the American Toad apart from the Houston Toad. Even more amusing, word on the street is the Houston Toad is bit of a “pick up artist”, not too picky about bed partners and known to sleep around. Houston Toads often interbreed with the American Toad. It seems there are a lot of ba***ards running around. That may be one reason why it’s so hard to tell them apart.

Well after all that work and spent money, it was a big disappointment to the environmental community devoted to Houston Toad issues, but we didn’t find any Houston Toads. On the other hand, we did valuable service in confirming that East Texas was a great place for the Houston Toad to live. They were almost certain to show up eventually because we found so many places that they could live.

In their daydreams, pipeline project managers imagine straight pipelines. Then we wake up, smile and go back to writing checks. Whoops, I mean solving problems. Our pipeline started out as a straight line drawn with a ruler onto a map. Of course we zigged and zagged to avoid towns, houses, prehistoric raptor nests and landowners related to a local judge. But our deep concern for the Houston Toad also required us to zig and zag around potential unicorn sanctuaries. After all, if you were a Houston Toad contemplating a move out of the Houston Zoo, would you want to have a nasty old pipeline in your back yard? No way, Jose!!

We moved our pipeline to avoid plots of land that might be possibly developed into future subdivisions of Houston Toad bungalows. We bought some more pipe, we threatened indignant landowners with condemnation proceedings and bought some more pipeline right of way, we re-surveyed the right-of-way, we paid the contractor more change orders, I wrote more checks. Everybody except the Owner of the pipeline and assorted landowners was happy.

I must admit that I did sometimes wonder about things, usually out in the field on the pipeline right-of-way. I am joshing you about spending all my time in the trailer writing checks. Mostly pipeline project managers just issue purchase orders to contractors and vendors, open purchase orders of course. That way it’s off our plate, at least until Accounting calls us on the carpet. We really spend most of our time 4-wheeling down the pipeline right of way looking for mud puddles to drive through. But I did wonder. If no one had seen a Houston Toad for fifty years, how did we know all these things about Houston Toads? If Houston Toads were so much like other toads, even interbreeding with them, was there really such a creature as a Houston Toad?

But the time to pursue unproductive thoughts on a pipeline project is limited. There are other serious concerns besides the Houston Toad. In order to get permission to build a pipeline, many, many permits from many, many governmental bodies are required. There are an unlimited number of unicorn sanctuaries needing the protection of a wide array of governmental bodies. And its not just unicorns, the governmental agencies responsible for East Texas are tasked to insure that pipelines don’t accidentally dig a trench through one of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. You might remember from your history classes that back before the United States stole Texas from Mexico, Francisco Coronado led an expedition searching the American Southwest for the fabled golden cities rumored to be there. There is always a possibility that Coronado misheard and the cities were located in East Texas rather than New Mexico. It could be.

Experienced pipeline project managers know that each state has a State Historical Preservation Office, known in the trade as SHPO (commonly pronounced as shippo). Among other things, this office is a repository of the locations of all known historical sites within the state. All pipelines must get a permit to construct from SHPO in order to ensure known historical sites are not damaged by pipeline construction. In the event that the rumors about cities of gold leading to Francisco Coronado’s exploratory trip back in 1540 were true, SHPO also requires that the pipeline route be thoroughly searched for the ruins of one of those seven cities. While looking for evidence of those seven cities, we are also required to locate and catalog old campsites from the Francisco Coronado expedition or whoever.

Since people practiced at identifying Houston Toads might be confused upon stumbling over an unexpected golden brick and stubbing their toe, the 500 million square feet examined for the Houston Toad must also be searched for the existence of golden bricks, or blackened campfire stones. To avoid confusing the blackened campfire stone from a week old keg party with a blackened campfire stone from the Coronado expedition, the people doing this investigation require proper archeological credentials as well.

To no ones surprise the folks looking for golden bricks have a lot in common with the folks looking for Houston Toads. Unless they have PhD’s in Archeology, they often work at Home Depot as well. If possible, they are even more prone to wander than the Biology majors. If possible, landowners like them even less. On the plus side, some of the folks checking for golden bricks have simply fabulous arrowhead collections that they love to show pipeline project managers, or anyone else for that matter.

I mentioned earlier that to build a pipeline is to be constantly amused. One of the more amusing aspects of pipeline permitting and construction is the fact that there exist a large, large number of historical sites that aren’t publicly known about,  known only to the cognoscenti. Each state’s SHPO has a secret archive of these known but unknown historical sites. Adding to the amusement is the fact that SHPO will not tell a pipeline project team whether the route for the proposed pipeline goes through any of these secret historical sites. SHPO simply rejects the pipeline route, without comment. As you might imagine this leaves the pipeline team in a bit of a pickle. Hopefully the pipeline team has an experienced pipeline project manager.

As noted earlier, there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by spreading a little money around in the right places. It turns out that SHPO has given access to the secret archives to a few special people, usually just one or two special people holding PhD’s. An experienced pipeline project manager knows that the project can hire one of these special people, for suitable remuneration of course. In the privacy of an RFI shielded conference room with windows covered, the pipeline team can play a game of Charades with the SHPO approved consultant and get a pipeline route that avoids “secret” sites. No tea parties, cupcakes or learned discussions of unicorn habitat required.

In another amusing turn of events, these special people, along with their holding of a prestigious PhD in Archeology, are often the owners of companies, specializing in searching pipeline right of ways for the hidden remains of golden cities, or old campfire stones. It just puts a smile on the face of pipeline project managers to learn that using these “anointed” contractors assures SHPO approval of the pipeline route. Using someone else to examine those 500 million square feet might cause SHPO to be a bit irritable. After all, how is SHPO to know that the golden bricks weren’t just melted down and sold at a yard sale by those deplorable pipeline builders?

But the laughs just keep coming. It turns out that if the pipeline “discovers” a previously unknown historical site, the pipeline is obligated to pay for that site to be completely and properly archeologically investigated. Of course, this only happens if the unknown site is “historically significant”. But the decision about “historical significance” is of course totally the decision of SHPO, in consultation with their qualified consultants, also known as the pipeline’s archeological contractor. Paid handsomely, I might add, and by the hour as well. We all learn the rules of the game right quickly.

Again, I must admit that I did sometimes wonder about things, again out on the right-of-way. The archeological community, that is SHPO, their “special” contractors and the underemployed and unemployed archeologists employed by those contractors, faces a quandary. The archeological community needs to excavate historical sites. It’s impossible to make it from a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree to PhD unless you write a paper, usually about what was found in the excavation of a historical site.

Even if you have a PhD along with tenured position in academia, you would like to appear on PBS, maybe even NOVA. But there is no chance of the PBS cameo without an archeological excavation. Finding money to excavate historical sites is notoriously hard to come by. A pipeline’s chance finding of a “historically significant” site along with its legal responsibility to pay for that site’s excavation must seem to be a godsend. One wonders.

But pipeline project managers aren’t paid to think. We are paid to solve problems. The real overwhelming advantage to being a pipeline project manager is the obvious one. We get to build things and we get to solve problems, but we spend OPM (Other Peoples Money). Along with doing our thing, i.e. building things, speeding through mud puddles on the right of way and solving problems; we get yelled at, we get threatened, the suits from the top floor come by and glare at us. We all get fired sooner or later, but it’s not our money and we move on to the next pipeline. Perhaps on the next pipeline we’ll get to sit in our trailer, getting paid to do nothing, and watch the medicine men doing their shtick through our window at the next Standing Rock Follies. See The Standing Rock Follies

After all the searching for Houston Toads and golden bricks, there was a happy ending for this project. The pipeline in East Texas was built and has been moving natural gas to market ever since. I am sure that some of the natural gas keeping the Adorables on the Left Coast warm this winter traveled through that very same pipeline. They were toasty warm in their penthouse apartments as they wrote checks to Friends of the Earth, while liking Standing Rock videos of medicine men doing their shtick on Facebook. But the company that built the pipeline, the Owner graciously allowing me the use of his money, the source of the OPM, nearly went bankrupt on that pipeline. A lot of really good people working for that company lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

There is always a cost to be paid. One wonders about the costs to be paid by the employees charged with building the Dakota Access pipeline. One wonders about the costs paid by the employees charged with building the Keystone Pipeline. There are consequences when these companies  incur substantial losses as a result of . . . . Who pays the cost when activists shut things down, when the hunt for unicorns stretches into years or the archeologists decide to excavate a find of “historical significance”? The consequences always come down to people. On the other hand, the Earth is being saved, Science is being served and the people feeling the pain work in the oil & gas business, which is the same thing as saying they are Deplorable.

Like every wreck, there were many reasons for the bad outcome for the people on that pipeline project in East Texas. We all contributed our fair share of hubris and stupidity. I certainly contributed my share and more. The Houston Frog was not even our biggest problem, but it was a heavy load on the pipeline’s back. An honest man must ask himself about the value received for the money and time spent, the damage to human beings done in the service of the interests of the Houston Toad. We didn’t find any golden bricks either, though we added many pages, at great cost, to the catalog of broken pottery shards and blackened campfire stones in East Texas.

Pipeliners’ use a simple rule of thumb to estimate the cost of the next pipeline and lie about the cost of the last pipeline. We all lie about how cheaply we built our last pipeline. It’s a bit like little boys on the playground bragging about who can pee the furthest. Its more silly than not, but the rule of thumb is simple and after all, we’re pipeliners. It’s what we do. The rule of thumb, like most rules of thumb, hides as much as it illuminates, but it does give a general guidance about what complex and unique things cost.

Our rule of thumb is expressed as $/inch-mile. The pipeline ensnarled with the Houston Toad was a 24” pipeline costing about $15,000/inch-mile for a cost of about $ 360,000 per mile of installed pipeline. I have been away from the business for a few years, but today I am told that same pipeline would be estimated at $ 40,000/inch-mile, or nearly one million dollars per mile of installed pipeline. That hundred mile pipeline we built in East Texas would cost another $ 65 million dollars if built today. One wonders what that additional $ 65 million dollars buys? How many more unicorns and golden bricks must be searched for? How many more permits must be gotten?

Is any human activity more reviled and warred upon by the Green Warriors of Mother Earth than the construction of pipelines? Perhaps the Green Warriors have the right of it. In any case, our grandchildren will be our judge if no one else. But an honest observer might draw a few parallels between the War to Save the Earth and World War I. In both cases, the generals, the engineers of the conflict, live far to the rear in the comfort of chateau’s, protected from loss, moving markers on a map according to the logic of an unexamined ideology. Meanwhile the markers being moved, sometimes called cannon fodder, struggle in the mud and confusion, counting the cost every time they are ordered over the top into No Mans Land.


One Response to “Hunting Unicorns”

  1. Greg V. says:

    Blazing Saddles, the “breaking wind ” scene, after a hearty meal of baked beans. I recalled it immediately, which is scary, since I have trouble remembering what day of the week it is.

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