May 2021 Vol. 76 No.5


The 1980s: Trying Times Breed Innovation, New Directions

75th Anniversary

The ‘80s picked up where the 1970s ended: an urgent nation impatiently waiting for more oil and gas to quench its rapacious energy thirst, at the lowest possible prices. The boom was on, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, and thousands of speculators made ill-advised decisions to invest in the industry, believing some experts’ claims that $100-a-barrel oil was within reach. 

Construction by 1980 had risen some 750 miles to 9,040 in the U.S., with gas lines accounting for 60 percent. Foreign jobs amounted to 16,130 miles, an increase of 6,000 over 1979. 

Pipeliners had prepared some 15 projects to transport the huge reserves of natural gas being found in Alaska to the Lower 48, but the planners could not get the financing they needed. Cost overruns on the pipeline were cited as a reason, interest rates were exorbitant and money was being siphoned off into more wasteful projects, such as synfuels and speculative ventures. 

In 1981, Reading & Bates Construction Co., made history by completing the first pipeline crossing under the Mississippi River, using HDD, with a 24-inch pipe. 

The pipeline industry was heavily involved in commissioning the large-diameter crude lines for the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. 

Technology continued to advance the industry, with the construction in 1982, of the first two major carbon dioxide lines, used to repressure old oil fields. There was also increased interest in automatic welding, which had been used successfully in Canada and elsewhere, but was still untested in the U.S. 

Much of the nation was wracked by recession and contractors were plagued by high interest rates and delays in getting paid for their work. Costs for skilled labor, when they could find it, as well as for fuel and equipment were also causing serious problems. 

Construction of the 793-mile, 36-inch Trailblazer System was completed in 1982, making it the first project to bring gas from the Overthrust Belt in the Rocky Mountains to Midwestern and Eastern markets. The 823-mile Northern Border Pipeline from Morgan, Mont., to Ventura, Iowa, also began operations that summer. 

By 1983, the construction industry had plans for 8,168 miles of lines, mostly small-scale gas projects, and there was no longer any mention of Alaskan projects. 

Adopted from Japan, microtunneling was used for the first time in the U.S., in 1984, to install a new 600-foot-long, 72-inch diameter sewer line under I-95 in Florida. 

In 1985, The Williams Companies began work on a 1,200-mile fiber optic telecommunications network in the Midwest. Referred to as “an unusual marriage between a pipeline and a communication system,” the project involved pulling the cables through abandoned petroleum product pipelines. 

Growing Pains 

Distribution contractors were studying innovative heating/cooling systems using buried piping, as a new market. Research, spearheaded by Oklahoma State University and Charles Machine Works Inc. (Perry, OK) claimed earth-coupled water source heat pump systems could use the heat of the sun stored in the ground to warm and cool buildings more efficiently and cheaper than traditional systems. 

Construction began that summer on Plains All American Pipeline Co.’s 1,768-mile, 30- inch system, the nation’s first oil pipeline running from the West Coast to the Gulf-Coast. 

Overseas activity in 1985 included Bechtel’s 313-mile, 24-inch LPG pipeline in Algeria and Statpipe’s 545-mile gas line in the Norwegian North Sea, part of a $3 billion project. 

A small news story in the January 1985 issue would be of monumental historic value to the gas industry: as part of new Houston Natural Gas Chairman/CEO Ken Lay’s restructuring, HNG, along with partners, was buying Florida Gas Transmission Co. and several other companies, while completing the purchase of Transwestern Pipeline Co. from Texas Eastern Transmission. Several months later, Houston Natural Gas and InterNorth, Inc. would announce a $2.3 billion merger. The company would soon be renamed Enron Corp. 

By 1988, the construction industry was soft and, to succeed, some companies had to concentrate on developing innovative equipment and techniques, enabling them to secure a particular niche by going into areas previously thought inaccessible. 

In 1989, The Williams Companies and Tenneco announced the 902-mile, 36-inch Kern River gas pipeline from Wyoming to California. The $984-million line would start in 1991 and be commissioned in 1992. 

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez incident on March 23, 1989, anger toward the energy industry was vented at pipelines as well, although the spill had nothing to do with transmission. That year, Panhandle Eastern bought Texas Eastern Transmission Corp. in a well-publicized action, beating out a bid from rival Coastal Corp. 

Magazine Sharpens its Focus 

Securing its leadership position in the industry, and specific support of the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), the magazine provided full coverage of the 20th annual DCA convention, in 1981 and started conducting annual surveys of contractors to discuss the issues they faced. 

Also marking DCA’s 25th anniversary, in 1986, the magazine reported that DCA predicted maintenance, renovation and repair of the nation’s gas, water and sewer systems would be prime areas of growth in the near future. 

In July 1987, the magazine took heed, publishing its first Infrastructure Report, the “3 Rs,” featuring the latest in the “Repair, Rehabilitation and Replacement of Gas, Sewer and Water Systems.” 

About mid-decade, more stories focused on water and sewer projects, and in 1986, the magazine’s bent toward underground technology was clear. An example was a fascinating tunneling job in Montreal that year, for which American Augers configured a 19-foot-diameter machine  
that helped contractors build collector interceptor lines through hard bedrock some 150 feet below the city. Twenty trucks were used to transport the machine, which produced more than 1 million pounds of torque. 

1986 also featured the magazine’s first fiber optic cable report. The next year’s March issue had the first special report on “Trenchless Excavation Boring,” a topic that would later become a staple of the magazine. The May issue focused on the latest techniques in rock trenching and July included the newest breakthrough in polyethylene linins. 

The trend continued for the rest of the decade, with even more technical stories on subjects, such as microtunneling, pipe pushing, directional drilling, pigging and removal of pipe coatings, drawn from jobs throughout the world. 

Most telling was the 1989 establishment of Trenchless Technology Center at Louisiana Tech University, by Dr. Tom Iseley. It quickly became, and remains today, a premier force in advancing trenchless technology, serving as an independent source of knowledge, research, and education in the field.

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