ESSAY: A More Technical Solution

Bill Hudson’s March 13 editorial in the Daily Post, ‘Saving Ourselves‘, reminded me of a consulting job I had in Guatemala several years ago. My client had a petroleum pipeline across the jungled hills. It moved heavy crude. Their problem was that in a tropical rainstorm, the rain cooled the above-ground pipeline so much that the oil congealed in the pipe. (This is a common problem in crude pipelines, especially since the increased price of petroleum makes it worthwhile to move and process heavy crude, even the goop from the Canadian tar sands. I’ve worked this same problem in California and on the Alaska North Slope.)

My recommendation was that they hire the natives living along the pipeline to build and maintain a long thatched roof over the pipe to keep the rain off. This would solve two problems: The natives had a habit of shooting holes in the pipe. With an economic interest in the pipeline, they wouldn’t want to drive it away.

My client responded that they were looking for a more technical solution. I told them they could inject condensate from their gas wells into the petroleum, which would decrease the viscosity enough that it would flow even when cold. They accepted my second solution and as far as I know the natives are still shooting holes in the pipe.

Mr. Hudson discusses E. F. Schumacher’s attempt to get the Indian government to promote small industry producing goods for local consumption. The editorial says: “This approach was — to judge from Mr. Schumacher’s writing — sharply at odds with the current economic thinking among India’s leadership, which foresaw solutions based on foreign investment and technology transfer, via capital-intensive manufacturing systems centered in the (ever-growing) urban areas of India.” The Indians had the same prejudice as the Guatemalans, on a larger scale.

There are other examples. Lenin and Stalin created famines in the Soviet Union by putting capital into heavy industry while forcing farmers into collectives. Stalin killed off the Kulaks (successful independent farmers) because “They wouldn’t accept tractors.” When Churchill taxed him about it during WWII, he replied: ”The Kulaks are stubborn. You ask them to do something and they say: ‘I have to talk to my wife… I have to talk to my herdsman…’”

Not to imply the obsession with big ideas or more technical or more modern solutions is only a problem in developing economies. When Ross Perot was asked why he left EDS after it was bought by General Motors, he said: “At EDS, when someone saw a snake, he killed it. At General Motors, they form a committee and hire a consultant.”

Jerry Modisette

Jerry Modisette, PhD, was at NASA Houston during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights and performed the tests selecting the Mercury heat shield materials. He also has extensive experience working in the petroleum industry. He lives in Cabezon Canyon, west of Pagosa Springs.