Pipeline appraiser David Howell has made a career of digging up abandoned pipelines–and of sharing his acumen and know-how with anyone who has need of it.
By Hanaba Munn Welch
In retrospect, David Howell would call it providence. But back in the mid-1950s, he knew only that he needed time to rethink his situation while his life still lay ahead of him. So he took off to Mexico for a couple of years to study and to learn Spanish—not exactly the same thing any other discouraged young oilman might do. But Howell, if nothing else, isn’t enamored of average.
Son and nephew of wildcatters, David Howell was born into the industry and was roughnecking by age 14, the same way his father got his start.
“The oilfield was in my blood,” he said.
“You had to have guts of iron to go out and wildcat the way we did it in those days,” Howell said.
Instead of drilling for oil, Howell ended up finding a niche in the industry instead. Among other things, he’s a pipeline appraiser—one who brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, including right-of-way expertise. His Houston-based company is Pipeline Equities. Credit his success to a compelling mix of abilities and know-how tempered with a work ethic and savvy acquired by learning how to hang in through the rough times in the industry. In some ways, Howell likes the down times better.
S.H. Howell was his father.
“He was an old wildcatter,” Howell said. “He and his brother, H.H. Howell—they called him ‘Clearwater’—made Alice [Texas] a boomtown in 1938. I was born in ’40.”
As a youngster, Howell witnessed firsthand the successes and failures of his own father.
“I was with my dad a hundred times when we’d get a good show,” he said. “We’d find out it was shale. I’d watch those grown men cry. We didn’t have the technology to produce from it. It sure made a kick. On a log it made it look like a million dollars.”
Times have changed. It was the Eagle Ford Shale.
But in the context of those early years, drilling into disappointing shale wasn’t the life young Howell envisioned for himself. College at Texas A&M University-Kingsville taught him he didn’t want to be a petroleum engineer either.
“I failed all those engineering courses,” he said, perhaps exaggerating or perhaps not.
But by the time he’d spent a couple of years on campus, he was into politics and enjoying being a Republican. Ultimately, he earned a degree in political science, specifically international relations.
Since then, the degree has matched his career—not in realms of high-level policy-making and diplomacy but on a practical level in the real world of the oilfield equipment business.
“I’ve bought and sold equipment all over the world,” he said. “I like to travel. I’ve mixed all that up. I’ve been to Israel, Iran, Brazil… ”
It was a 1970s deal in Venezuela that brought him a measure of distinction in the business of oilfield equipment buying and selling. Maybe his Spanish helped.
“I was the first guy to ever to get an export permit to get equipment out of Venezuela,” Howell said. “They’d never allowed anybody else to do that.”
It all started with Howell’s quest to get a workover rig both in and out of the country.
“They gave me a blanket permit,” Howell said. “It was kind of a freak deal.”
Instead of taking in and bringing out just the workover rig, Howell seized the chance to use the Venezuelan export permit for other equipment too—a whole shipload.
“It was all good equipment,” Howell said. “I didn’t pay much more than scrap price for it. It was just accumulated. It was Delta Drilling Company. They had a yard full of equipment they didn’t need.”
Howell has other stories of international deals, including the purchase and recycling of a pipeline that originally carried Oklahoma crude.
“In the ‘20s, there was a lot of production in Oklahoma,” Howell said. “Then that dried up and they took the pipeline up when the boom started in the Permian Basin. They re-laid the same pipe.”
Howell bought the pipe from Occidental Petroleum and salvaged it.
“I sent about half of the pipe to Mexico to be in a slurry line for a copper mine,” he said. “The other 200,000 feet of it, I sent to Vietnam, where it is used as a water line.”
Recycling? For Howell it’s not a matter of bending to society’s environmental concerns. It’s business. Not that Howell doesn’t have a heart for ethics when it comes to environmental issues. He does. He’s currently an expert witness for lawyers representing a Texas land owner in a case involving an abandoned pipeline.
“I work for who hires me,” Howell said.
But for Howell, even with oil in his veins, it’s primarily a matter of telling it like it is—not a matter of taking sides.
“I just have to,” he said. “There aren’t any secrets anymore. Everything is a Google away.”
The ownership of abandoned pipelines raises tough issues, from both strictly legal and also ethical perspectives. Asbestos makes it all the more interesting.
“There’s no fooling some rancher and him not knowing what is going on,” Howell said, glad he’s lived to see the Internet put information at everyone’s fingertips.
But even when facts are obvious, solutions may not be. And the same Internet that gives everyone access to knowledge draws lay people into situations where they don’t understand all the rules.
“I feel for a lot of these landowners, really,” Howell said. “Particularly the ones where these guys are abandoning pipeline on their property.”
The word “abandoned” is what Howell describes as a “murky” word with different layers of meaning. In the pipeline business, it means the line has been idled, purged, and capped. Warning signs and right-of-way maintenance are no longer required. Landowners often don’t realize the old so-called abandoned pipeline cutting across their place doesn’t belong to them. After all, it’s abandoned.
“People call me all the time,” Howell said.
“There’s an abandoned pipeline on my property,” the caller says, having discovered Howell on the Internet. “Will you come dig it up?’”
Howell tells them immediately they first need to find out who owns it.
An expanded version of a sample scenario:
The landowner wants to dig a pond. The pipeline, no longer active, is in the way. Built before 1980, the pipeline has a coating that contains asbestos. (At least 90 percent of pre-1980 pipeline coatings contain asbestos, according to Howell.)
“It’s the best insulation material that you can buy,” Howell said. “Red Adair would wear this asbestos suit to walk up to a burning oil well.”
But asbestos, because of health and environmental concerns, is a hazard. From the landowner’s perspective, his or her property is being used as a hazardous materials landfill.
“I think the day’s coming where a lot of these companies are going to have to deal with that,” Howell said. “A lot of companies don’t want to mess with that. Just let that dog lie.”
The same Internet that has roused the dog has also informed the average person about right-of-way issues, particularly prices paid. Among other certifications, Senior Right of Way Agent is a designation Howell holds.
“Everybody has got to start being more responsible,” Howell said. “You can’t pay ten cents a foot for right of way in Crane County and pay eight dollars a foot for it over in McCamey. It just doesn’t work that way anymore.”
It’s the Internet that has given Howell a chance to prove he’s all about transparency. He puts his pipeline valuation techniques on the Internet for anyone to download, and the same goes for his right-of-way manual. Theoretically, a would-be appraiser of pipelines could take all of Howell’s information and tips and learn to utilize the same techniques and approaches to take a cut of the same business pie.
So far, it hasn’t happened. The pipeline appraisal pie the flavor of Howell’s brand of appraisal remains sliced into just a few big pieces. Pipeline appraisers who work with the same set of tools and knowledge as Howell are few in number—about five, by his calculations, and he’s counting himself.
Now that the oil and gas industry is in a boom phase, things could change. But even a casual perusal of Howell’s online manuals is enough to daunt any novice. What Howell does is, plain and simple, a lot of work.
“Most people, they don’t execute,” he said.
Maybe most people didn’t have a wildcatter daddy telling them at age 14 they’re big enough to start roughnecking.
That’s not counting the challenging times that have characterized the post-exploration phase of Howell’s long career—years of buying, selling, and appraising through thick and thin. But to his mind, the so-called bad years for the petroleum industry have been some of his best.
“Some of the best money I ever made was when oil was cheap and you didn’t have all the newcomers in the business,” he said.
When players in the industry are few, Howell finds it easier to make his knowledge count and be recognized as a standout.
“You just have the old people scratching around and trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “Nobody wants to be in it then.”
A boom changes things.
“When the boom’s on, there’s lots of games in town,” Howell said.
For that matter, Howell has a game of his own that suits the current boom. He uses a strong presence on the Internet to promote himself. Putting information about his specialized line of work online and making his manuals downloadable has brought him business rather than competition. See pipelineequities.com.
“I put it all out there,” he said. “Whenever my phone rings, it’s not just a prospect. I’ve got a sale.”
(Unless, of course, someone is wanting him to dig up a pipeline they don’t own, and even those calls can ultimately bring him work.)
Howell doesn’t have to sell himself.
“They’ve already looked me over,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier for me at this point in my life.”
Maybe it should be no surprise that Howell has adapted so well to the digital age and is so comfortable making optimum use of the Internet. He’s still that same clever guy who took advantage of a Venezuelan export permit.