This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features pipeline historian KC Yost returning to the podcast for Part 2 of a discussion about the history of the pipeline industry with host Russel Treat.
In this episode, you will learn about pipeline routing and the history behind it, topography and how it impacts the industry, and KC’s work history with technological advancements in geo mapping. You will also hear about working in the pipeline industry now and how it compares to years past.
Pipeline History: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- KC Yost is the Director of Onshore Services for Cronus Technology, Inc. Find and connect with KC on LinkedIn. Also, contact KC directly at 713-787-9444 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Google Earth Pro is a computer program that renders a 3D representation of Earth based primarily on satellite imagery.
- USGS (United States Geological Survey) Quads is a Google Earth network link that plots approximate USGS quadrangle boundaries and provides direct access to 127,692 geospatial PDF topo maps.
- Georectification is the process by which a remotely sensed raster image (e.g. an aerial photograph, a satellite image, geophysics results, or even a scanned map) is linked into a coordinate system so that it can be accurately located onto a map.
- Tennessee Gas Pipeline is now owned by Kinder Morgan and extends from South Texas and Offshore Louisiana to New York state.
- Rolligons is a trademark name for large, low pressure tires, designed to traverse the soft ground, the vehicles can traverse tundra at up to 10 miles per hour.
- Trans Alaskan Pipeline System (TAPS) includes the trans-Alaska crude-oil pipeline, 11 pump stations, several hundred miles of feeder pipelines, and the Valdez Marine Terminal. TAPS is one of the world’s largest pipeline systems.
- Texas Railroad Commission is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry, and surface coal and uranium mining.
- GIS is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface and can show that data on maps.
- Dravo Corporation was a shipbuilding company with shipyards in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Delaware.
- WILD Theodolite is a precision optical instrument for measuring angles between designated visible points in the horizontal and vertical planes.
Pipeline History: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 95, sponsored by EnerSys Corporation, providers of POEMS, the Pipeline Operations Excellence Management System, SCADA, compliance, and operations software for the pipeline control center. Find out more about POEMS at enersyscorp.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.
Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. We appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we’re giving away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Michael Yehle with Xcel Energy.
Michael, if I didn’t get your name correct, I apologize, but you get a YETI regardless. It’s on its way. To learn how you can win this signature price pack, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, KC Yost is coming back to talk about the history of pipelining and how we have evolved in figuring out pipeline routes. KC, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.
KC Yost: Thank you, Russel. It’s wonderful to be back. Thanks for inviting me.
Russel: It was a lot of fun. You may not recall this, but you were last on episode 58. We are now on episode 95. It’s been almost a year since you’ve been on the podcast.
KC: Congratulations on the growth of your podcast, Russel. I think it’s very exciting that things are starting to take off for you.
Russel: It certainly is, KC. It’s really cool. I’m getting more feedback and interaction with listeners and really just getting a lot of feedback about how much people enjoy listening and how much they’re learning. That’s really the whole point of doing all this.
Just to transition a little bit, I was going to remind you a little bit what we talked about when you were on last time. We were talking about the history of pipelining because of your family history. I guess I would call you a curator of pipeline history.
We talked about your grandfather and him becoming a teamster and history of digging, evolution of pipe bending, and some other things. You brought up pipeline routing. Frankly, I just found that fascinating. Why don’t we just dive in and talk about what is pipeline routing and how we used do it.
KC: [laughs] It’s amazing, where we are now versus where we were a hundred years ago, Russel. Last month, I was working with some young engineers on a pipeline route from Baytown to Texas City, here in the Houston Ship Channel area.
We were using Google Earth Pro and essentially putting a pin where we wanted to start the pipeline and a pin where we wanted to end the pipeline and then drew a straight line between the two points and started looking for pipeline routes to follow corridors, other pipelines, other utilities through the process.
I started looking at these kids and thinking I was actually doing pipeline routing back before they were born and, 40, 45 years ago, how we were using USGS quads to put the sheets together and actually…
Russel: I will have to stop you right there, KC. You’re going to have to explain what a USGS quad is. I’m guessing there are some younger guys that have never heard of such a thing. [laughs]
KC: Fair enough. It’s a paper map. You can get it online. It is an excellent overlay for Google Earth Pro. USGS stands for United States Geological Survey. You could get these quad maps in two sizes. One was a 7.5 minute quad or a 15 minute quad. The 7.5 minute quad had a scale of one inch equals 2,000 feet.
The half minute or the minute is based off of degrees, latitude, and longitude. You know that each degree is broken up into 60 minutes. Each one of these maps would represent 7.5 minutes or 15 minutes of that 1 minute to get to the 60 minutes for the one degree of latitude or longitude.
Russel: These were the kind of maps that when I was doing orienteering in the Boy Scout, this was the kind of map we would get. It had all of the headings. It had all the topographical markings and all that kind of stuff so that you could actually go out on a hike and between a compass and the map have some clue where you were at.
KC: Exactly the same maps. That’s exactly right. Those maps have been developed over the years and are still maintained to remarkable accuracy. That’s what we were using. That was cutting edge technology in the ’70s, when I first started.
A great tool to have. We would literally bend back the edges of these maps so that we could tape them together and have one continuous map from a starting point to an ending point, literally taking these maps and taping them, or sticking them, to walls in our office.
Then putting a pin where we wanted to start and a pin where we wanted to end. Instead of the straight line that we would draw on the Google Earth Pro software, we actually took a stringline and put a string from pin to pin. That’s how we started doing routing.
Mr. Bill Such, Newsom Caraway, Bill Hancock, Richard Lyons, Larry Broussard, with Tennessee Gas Pipeline all spent time teaching me the nuances of routing a pipeline from point A to point B. Obviously, the longer the line, the more maps you had. The more maps you had, the more folding and taping you had to do.
We had one guy at the company whose responsibility it was to make sure that we had a USGS quad for every inch of the pipeline, from South Texas up to the East Coast. He stayed on top of it constantly. It was an easy call down to him to get it.
Russel: That’s a whole lot of maps and a whole stringlines.
KC: A lot of flat drawers, absolutely, a lot of flat drawers. He did an excellent job of keeping track of all of it. That’s how we were doing it 40, 45 years ago. These kids couldn’t believe me until I did the overlay of the Google Earth Pro and showed the topography that was available on the USGS quad.
Of course, they then pointed out the topography feature that’s on the Google Earth Pro, but that’s okay. That’s the way they’re learning, so I’m fine with that. It’s a good experience for them.
Russel: I think one of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that those USGS maps, for a long time, they didn’t cover the entirety of the U.S. with great accuracy.
Russel: Those things had to be built by survey crews that would go out with chains and theodolites and manually get all that data collected. Some of those quads were, some of them in more populated areas or more traveled areas, would be fairly detailed. Some of them in areas that were remote were not very detailed.
KC: Right. You’re absolutely correct. Look at some of the maps and topography drawings that were put together as far back as the Civil War and how accurate some of those maps were for certain areas, specifically Northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, were really quite detailed, for their time.
Even into the ’60s and ’70s, there were a lot of areas that the maps seemed to leave something to be desired. I recall my old friend Ron Mara showing me pictures.
I believe I have a few of them here, showing he and some of his associates in Rolligons up in Alaska, trying to come up with a route across four mountain ranges to get from the north slope down to Valdez to deliver the Trans Alaskan Pipeline.
These were amazing guys that were out scouting routes, frankly, not too much different than the way scouts used to look for routes across the Rocky Mountains for wagon trains.
Russel: Yeah, not much different than Lewis and Clark, even.
Russel: You think about it, and I guess, what year was it when they originally started trying to scout the routes for the Alaskan pipeline?
KC: Mid ’60s, I believe, is when Bechtel was going up and spending some time up there.
Russel: You think about that, and there was vast parts of Alaska that wasn’t mapped.
Russel: To go up there, and I guess the difference would be that, instead of doing it with dogsleds and being in the elements, you at least were able to do it in motorized equipment, have some protection from the elements.
Even so, some of that stuff that was through areas that were pretty well never seen a set of human feet.
KC: Yes, these guys were very hardy and very dedicated to get the job done. It was pretty cool to listen to some of his stories about their exploits and challenges.
Russel: I can only imagine. That’s some harsh country.
Russel: Just some very harsh country.
KC: I’m sorry, I was just going to say, we faced the same challenges when my grandfather was building pipelines in the early 1900s, in that they would hire local boys to work in the operations group, and these young men knew how to get from point A to point B in their little district.
That’s how they learned how to route the short pipelines. As you started getting into longer and longer pipelines, even in the lower 48 states in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, it was still quite a challenge for a lot of those routes.
Russel: No doubt, no doubt. I guess this is one of those things that’s really interesting to me, because, if you think about Google Earth and what we’re currently doing with satellite imagery and now drone imagery, all of a sudden, this area of mapping, topology, and such, it’s beginning to move very rapidly in terms of change.
How late, or how recently, were we still using the USGS quads?
KC: [laughs] Last week.
KC: I’m working on a job in Mississippi, and I saw a clearing that looked like a pipeline route, but I couldn’t identify it clearly. Some states have better records when it comes to identifying pipelines in their states than others.
The Texas Railroad Commission has really an outstanding set of documents and maps, GIS maps, to allow you to identify pipelines. Some of the pipeline locations on these are right on the money. Others are 1,000 feet off.
You always want to try and verify and validate. I was looking at this route, and I saw this clearing. It looked like a pipeline right of way, but I couldn’t see any markings or any clear cut information on it. I actually did the USGS overlay on that portion of the Google Earth Pro.
It popped up, and I was able to identify the pipeline and where it was. It helped out quite a bit. It may just be because I’m 65 years old, but the idea of still having that in my hip pocket as my safety net works out extremely well for me.
Russel: That certainly makes sense to me. I’m with you. I go back to the things I started with often, because I believe technology. I use technology all the time, but when I need to get down to first principles, I go back to what all this stuff is built up from.
To a large degree, the U.S. Geological Survey maps is where a lot of this stuff is built up from, if you will.
Russel: It establishes the benchmarks, the baselines, and all of that. I guess I was asking when did we begin to move away from those maps as the first place we went and start using things like Google Earth?
KC: As Google Earth became more and more proficient, more and more accurate, and more and more up to date, it became much more reasonable for guys like me to use the Google Earth.
I was told a couple of years ago that, within 10 years, we will have enough microsatellites, I believe, is what they’re called in and over the United States that you’ll be able to have a satellite photograph of an area every hour and a half.
Russel: Yes, I’ve actually been looking at that technology. We have some people that are going to be coming on the podcast to talk about that kind of technology. It’s really quite interesting. The challenge that satellite technology has right now is that a typical pixel is about 25 yards square.
That’s still a fairly big piece of ground. What’s happening is the cameras are being able to handle more pixels, and they’re being able to fly the satellites at a lower altitude. Consequently, they’re getting down in the next generation to a pixel being about a five foot square. As they get more and more density, they’re going to be able to do more and more things.
KC: All of the projects I’m working on right now, whether it be up in Cushing, down here in the Houston ship channel, or over in Mississippi, we’re using satellite imagery for the background of our alignment sheets.
We are able to get enough accuracy and enough clarity in the drawing background to really enhance the effort, as compared to, again, 40 some odd years ago, where we had either no background, we had a USGS background, or we’d wait for the clouds to clear, and we’d get a fixed wing aircraft to fly a route.
Then we’d have to ortho and georectify that aerial in order to have an aerial background. We’ve made some tremendous advances with the satellites over even what we were doing 30 years ago with the fixed wing aircraft and all of that.
You can’t forget to talk about drones as well. The idea of being able to get up and see from the air what you’re getting into and the route that you’re picking out is very, very important. Drones are really coming to the forefront, being used quite a bit.
Russel: Oh, yeah, they’re going to transform. If you think about this, I tend to think of timelines when you start talking about technology. There was a lot going on with mapping even before satellites, GIS, and all that kind of stuff.
They were improving the quality of the survey equipment, and they were beginning to use lasers to get distances, and things of that nature that improved things. Really, it’s only been the last 15 years, maybe, where we’ve started to use things like Google Maps, and where we’re beginning to get…
Where Google Maps is becoming the baseline, or data like Google Maps. GIS data’s becoming the baseline. Now, we’re doing things where all of the imagery that we pick up, and all the maps and data that we pick up, it’s all GIS or georeferenced.
Meaning all that imagery’s located in three dimensions, which makes a huge difference when you start processing all this stuff. Putting that together, I remember doing that manually when I was in college, doing surveying as a civil engineer.
Oh, my gosh, that was a tedious process, shooting stadia, doing all kinds of calculations, and plotting all that manually on a map. Now, you just basically take a picture, and you’ve got it. It’s crazy.
KC: In 1975 as a summer job, I worked for Dravo Corporation up in Pittsburgh. We were doing survey work. I was part of a survey crew, working on an earthen dam up where Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania meet.
We were using WILD theodolites. This was cutting edge technology in 1975. It had what they called a funny rod, where the leg would be set to whatever the height of the instrument is. It had a flat surface on it with three different sets of numbers on it running vertically, left, right, and then center.
When you looked through the theodolite, you had three lines in there, left, right, and center. They would cut across the eyepiece. If you read each one of those numbers where the crosshair crossed one of those lines, you could not only calculate the distance you were away from the funny rod, but also, the elevation difference in the funny rod, with just a few little calculations.
We thought that was just unbelievable. I went out, and I watched surveyors two weeks ago down in Texas City. They would set up after they had a base station set up, and establish. They were spending 30 seconds on a point. They would have sub-centimeter accuracy in 30 seconds, and they’d walk on.
Russel: [laughs] Crazy. I remember doing that very thing, and somebody had an HP hand calculator that had a surveyors program in it so that you could just put in the stadia numbers, and it would calculate the distance and the elevation of the point. We thought that was way cool. [laughs]
KC: Absolutely, absolutely.
Russel: You don’t even bother to do that now.
KC: All that proves, Russel, is that we’re both getting old.
Russel: That’s exactly right. It also means we know how things work. That’s the other thing.
KC: [laughs] Nowadays, with the GIS, the Google Earth Pro, and the USGS overlays, and all of this, the satellite imagery, they’re great advancements, and make life so much easier when it comes to routing.
There are just so many other challenges that today’s engineers face in routing that the guys really didn’t worry about 40 years ago, let alone 100 years ago, when my grandfather was doing it.
Russel: Actually, I think that’s a great point, KC. Historically — talking about historically, 75, 100 years ago — it was just dealing with how were you going to get a route? How were you actually going to get the pipeline in the ground, and how were you actually going to move the fluid was challenging enough.
Russel: Now, with all the advancements, it’s not like that’s not a challenge. It is, but it’s not a major challenge. The major challenge is now, how do we do that, and how do we do that in a way that we consider minimizing the environmental impact, minimizing construction effort, and those types of things?
KC: Right. The rule of thumb that I use regularly is that a total installed cost for pipeline is typically 30 percent material cost, 30 percent construction cost, 30 percent right of way, and environmental cost, and then the last 10 percent is engineering services, survey, inspection, and all of that kind of thing.
Really, you’ve got a three-legged stool that you’re standing on. It becomes important for the engineer, when doing the routing, to figure out a way to optimize those routes. Some of the worst pipeline routes I’ve ever seen were ones that were picked out by right-of-way hands.
Where they basically stayed with one land owner, but were going through a number of what’s called USAs, unusually sensitive areas. Pitcher plant bogs, wetland areas, that type of thing, or construction costs, or out of the route.
I’ve also seen really, really bad projects where an engineer has gone out on his own, picked the route, and left the environmentalists and the right of way people hanging, and the construction guys as well.
It’s really important that the three groups work together to come up with a route that gets from point A to point B and is conscious of the environment, conscious of the landowners, stakeholders, and makes them a good steward of the client’s money and a good steward of the environment.
Russel: You also have hydraulic issues, too, when you start dealing in some of these areas, where you have big elevation changes and things of that nature. It’s trying to strike the right balance between the competing requirements or the competing needs.
Like everything else, it’s one of those things that everything’s easy until you know enough about it.
KC: Absolutely. I recall, years ago, an owner of the company I worked for said he thought it was pretty cool that we got someone to dig a ditch, throw a pipe in it, cover it up, and we got paid. [laughs] We explained to him what we did for a living, and I think he was fairly impressed.
At the end of the day, that’s how many people take it, that that’s all there is to it. There are a lot of nuances to the work.
Russel: Oh, yeah, there is. There’s a lot that goes into it. You’ve also got issues with the soils themselves, depending do I want to put a pipe through an area that’s rocky soil, sandy soil, or clay? All of those have impacts on construction cost, pipeline maintenance, and risk.
That’s without even talking about the other issues, like, how many times am I going to do a river crossing, and how many landowners do I need to get involved, and on, and on, and on.
Russel: It would seem like, “I need to get a fluid from A to B. I just draw a straight line, and there I go.” [laughs] It’s not anything like that.
KC: That’s where everyone starts. We just have different tools to get to where we are nowadays and different concerns. From an environmental perspective, my old friend, Mark Nussbaum, used to tell me when it came to wetlands, avoid them if you can.
If you can’t avoid them, minimize the impact to them. If you can’t do that, then we have to mitigate. That costs the client a lot of money. Thank god for directional drilling.
Russel: That’s true. That’s saving a lot of grief and aggravation, for sure.
Russel: KC, I wanted to ask you, this is the third time you’ve been on the podcast, and I haven’t really asked you. What is it that you actually do as a pipeliner? What’s your particular skill set? What do you do for a living?
KC: Great question. I spent 20 years with a company, helped grow their engineering group to a fairly large size, decided to retire, didn’t like playing golf five days a week, tried to get back into the industry.
Finally found a place that I’m very comfortable with, a company called Cronus Technologies, Inc. These guys are mainly offshore, deepwater pipeline fellows. We decided two years ago, or they decided, to get into the onshore business.
I was hired on two years ago to start growing their onshore group. Just like anything else, you crawl before you walk, walk before you run. We’re walking now. We’ve done projects in West Texas, Southeastern Louisiana.
I’ve done work in North Texas — I mentioned Cushing — and doing work down here in the Houston Ship Channel, gone east to Mississippi, talked with a gentleman today about some work up in the Bakken (Formation). We’re starting to grow our group and don’t want to get too big, but it’s fun to hang out with these young engineers that are frankly so much more intelligent than me.
They do absorb the experience that I have, and it’s been a lot of fun to start building pipelines again. I was in administration for such a long time that I lost touch on how much fun it was to sit down and do design work and project management work.
I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of years and plan on staying, working for another five, six, seven years, until I’m in my 70s, and just have a good time with these guys.
Russel: KC, I’m 61, and one of the things that gives me the most joy is working with the younger engineers, software developers, and such, to learn from them. I learn from them, I’m certain, as much as they learn from me.
It’s fun to mentor those guys. I’ve stepped in a whole lot of potholes, twisted a lot of ankles, and broke a leg or two over the years. I mean metaphorically, obviously. [laughs] Being able to pass that experience along and try to do it in a way that they can make new mistakes, not make the mistakes you made, it’s a lot of fun.
Particularly when you’re working with sharp, energetic folks, it’s just fun. It’s fun to build a team. I’m like you. I’m a nerd. I enjoy this work.
KC: Absolutely. It’s been very enjoyable. I suspect it’s been 10 plus years that I was in administration full time and away from project design work. Cronus has given me the opportunity to work with some really nice clients.
Some of them are literally old friends of mine that I’ve known for 20 or 30 years and really enjoyed working at Cronus, building this little group, and starting to branch out our footprint, while the offshore guys stay busy with their webbed feet, and working in 10,000 feet of water.
I think I mentioned in the last podcast that, when I was working offshore — I guess the last time was in the mid ’80s — we were getting out to 300 foot water depths. We just thought that was cutting edge, again. You were talking about that.
These guys are working in 10,000, 12,000 feet of water like it’s nothing. It’s amazing, the strides that they’ve made offshore. We talk about onshore, but it’s just amazing what these young men and women can do now that we hadn’t even thought of.
Russel: I think that’d actually be an interesting conversation for another time, about what are some of the differences when you’re doing pipelining offshore, and particularly when you’re doing pipelining deepwater because it is different.
KC: I can put you in touch with the right guys.
Russel: That would be great. KC, if somebody wanted to reach out to you and tag you to get some help with some pipeline construction or routing, what would be the best way to reach you?
KC: Two ways. The office telephone number is 713-787-9444. That’s 713-787-9444. My email address is very complicated, email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from people. I would be happy to share any experience that I have with them.
Russel: For the listeners, as always, we’ll drop all that into the show notes so that if you’d like to hook up with KC and get the benefit of his many years of experience, you’ll be able to do that. KC, thanks for coming on the podcast. It’s a pleasure, as always. I’m sure we’ll be asking you back.
KC: Look forward to it, Russel. Thanks very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Russel: Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with KC Yost. Just a reminder before you go. You should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinepodcastnetwork.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
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Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let us know on the Contact Us page at pipelinepodcastnetwork.com, or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords