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When Geography Gets Exciting: Planning a new Oil Pipeline

When the average person thinks of the oil industry, what is the image that comes to mind? Clean, brightly branded trucks on their way to the gas station, after all the extraction and refining has already been done? Oil derricks pumping away in the sunset while camels graze peacefully alongside? Maybe natural gas being flared off at the wellhead like a beacon in the dark?

Long before any of these things can happen, somebody has to get into a Land Rover and chart a course between the location of a petroleum deposit and a harbor or some other point where the oil can be used or loaded. Part of this process means calculating how much soil and rock has to be cut or blasted away in some places and filled in elsewhere for a pipeline to be safely laid from A to B. Obstacles have to be routed around, rights of way negotiated and contingencies planned against before it’s possible to estimate how much the whole thing will cost and whether the project is worth it in a commercial sense.

A Very Tough Job

Someone from outside the industry might think that this can all be accomplished in an afternoon using satellite imagery and Google Maps. This would probably be how it’s done if a new oil deposit is found in Kansas or Denmark, but is rarely how it works out.

Petroleum seems to like living under scorching deserts, tropical jungles, swamps, and permanently frozen tundra – and that’s when reserves don’t lie hundreds of feet underwater. If the terrain wasn’t enough to contend with, it often forms part of the territory of a troubled or failing political entity. Venezuela – a country with larger proven reserves than Saudi Arabia – has been teetering on the edge of civil war for months. Everybody knows what happened in Iraq, while the oil industry’s pattern of bullying or bribing third world countries is a disgrace.

The Tools of the Trade

Long before things like a compass and theodolite get packed, the first priorities are survival and mobility. Even in the jungle, water is the most important human requirement, which is usually taken care of with disinfectant tablets and/or reverse osmosis filters. In the desert, all water has to be taken along, but at least much, much more ground can be covered and surveyed per day.

While extra parts and batteries for vehicles and equipment take up plenty of space, the preference is for equipment that can perform more than one task. An air compressor, for instance, can automatically inflate the tires but also drive a variety of power tools, as well as getting a campfire started in a hurry.

Finally, although maps and the ability to read them remains an essential skill, most surveyors will happily pay several times the price of an urban GPS when shopping for professional use. Apart from giving a rough indication of elevation and storing a route map, the biggest difference in these models is ruggedness and antenna sensitivity – satellite signals are easily blocked by overhead tree canopies.

Who Does This?

Anyone who enters this occupation needs to have familiarity with the area in which he (it’s always a he) will be operating, including local contacts and fluency in whatever languages are spoken.

He will also be enormously self-reliant, sometimes to the point of being slightly crazy or awkward in the company of others. At the same time, he needs the confidence and poise to speak to corporate directors and government officials at their own level even after spending weeks or months by himself.

Other characteristics include graduate-level cartographic skills and a substantial ability to improvise. When his vehicle dies, the radio or satellite phone can’t receive a reply, he or one of his team is bitten by a snake, or any of the thousand things that can go wrong a hundred miles from civilization does, the only one who can help will be him. If you don’t know how to change a flat tire, this is not the profession for you. On the plus side, this kind of surveyor often charges per kilometer mapped – and they don’t work cheaply.

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