After moving into our new home in the Champions community in north-west Houston, 18 miles from downtown in January 1980, we started to get to know our neighbors. It was an amazing coincidence to find that I, with a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering was living opposite to two other Chemical Engineering Ph.D.s, Mel Sagankahn and Charley Johnson. Mel worked for Shell Chemical and Charley had surprisingly had a 15 year career as a star football quarterback for St. Louis, Houston and Denver. (He later became a Chem. Eng. Professor at his alma mater, New Mexico State University in 2012.) It was also a surprise to find, via our mailman, that another Glover couple lived four houses away and to also find that they were like us, formerly British.
A few days after I went back to my office at Production Operators, I found several closed doors and wondered what was happening since I was clearly excluded from being involved. When things settled down, my boss, Paul Pigue came to my office to tell me what had happened. Apparently the concern that Paul’s partners, Walter Brooks and Stuart Campbell had about Paul hiring me to take over operations had culminated with them disrupting the partnership and leaving to form a rival company providing identical compression services to the oil and gas industry. They told Paul they had been discussing it for some time and with Paul “going behind their back” to do it had convinced them it was time. They claimed “ownership” of some of the compression units which they designated and claimed to have been contracted by one or both of them personally, and they were taking control of these, together with some of the operators who had already agreed to switch companies. Paul was devastated and left to tell his story to the company’s attorney, clearly intending to fight their claim to be able to do this.
This entirely changed Paul’s plan to be less involved in all aspects of the business and asked me to be patient and remain as Executive VP until I had time to get more acclimatized. He said my salary would be unaffected and he would appreciate my suggestions at all times. I was happy to oblige since the salary was more important to me than the title and I realized that there was less urgency to learn the parts of the operations that were new to me.
I immediately gravitated to the cryogenic nitrogen plant that had been ordered from Kobe Steel in Japan through the sales organization of the Mitsui Corporation. As I learned the details, I quickly ascertained that with at least three highly competent air separation companies, including my previous company, Air Liquide, available in the States, POI had chosen a foreign company that had never built a nitrogen plant and only oxygen plants for their own use in their steel mill. (I assumed the decision to buy was made solely on promises and price.) I resolved to investigate and find out more about it and I knew immediately that I needed project engineering help that was not available in the company.
Twenty two years earlier, I had made proposals for and sold cryogenic units to the Chemico Company in New York and had formed an excellent relationship with their Manager of Projects, Al Domeshek. When I worked with American Cryogenics in Atlanta in the sixties, I had previously been faced with a similar problem and was responsible for persuading Al Domeshek to join that company as Projects Manager. He was the help I knew I needed again and I tracked him down and brought him to Houston as Manager of Engineering, a department that did not exist.
Previous engineering problems of the company had been handled by individuals from Operations or the Construction Shop where most of the work only involved assembly of gas engine drives to compressors on a skid for transportation to the customers’ sites. POI was entering a new field which required construction and operation of a major process plant as well as performing the compression service. They had ordered four 2,000 horsepower electric motor driven compressors. (Note: This was a mistake as the drives should have been reciprocating gas engines, especially being located in an oil and gas field where Chevron could have provided the gas for free.), to take the generated inert nitrogen to the 3,000 psig pressure required to maintain pressure in Chevron’s 15,000 foot deep wells so that the oil would continue to flow to the well surface. The associated produced natural gas was to be separated at the well-head and sent via the Trailblazer Pipeline to Nebraska where it would join the NGPL line to Chicago.
Evanston was originally a railroad town and is located at 6,749 feet altitude in the Wasach Mountains with surrounding peaks much higher. The nitrogen plant and its centrifugal air compressor were on the top of a mountain with a 5 mile typical mountain gravel-topped road winding up and round precipitous hills. When Chevron discovered the oil field in the late seventies, they wanted to build a much shorter and simpler two mile road closer to the town but a lady who owned the property rights and had been refused a Chevron charge card, would not allow it. When Kobe’s 30 foot long rectangular cold box containing the heat exchangers and distillation columns was delivered, it took almost a complete day to get it to the site. One particularly dangerous part of the road was called “Cherry-picker Hill” because a truck carrying a cherry-picker crane fell off the road and the crane can be seen about 1,500 feet at the bottom of a ravine. I was told that one day when the site was being prepared, the workers found a lone moose guarding the top of the hill.
In April, 1980, Paul Pigue and his wife were invited by Ingersoll Rand, from whom POI had just bought four 2,000 HP compressors for the nitrogen injection, to be their guests for three days at the Kentucky Derby in May. His wife had a prior engagement and they could not go so he invited Doris and I to go in their place and gave us the plane tickets and reservation information that had been provided. We found that we were a party of eight with one Ingersoll Rand cohost couple and two other guest couples in the Galt House Hotel where the horse owners and trainers traditionally stayed for Derby Week. We went to the track all three afternoons and in the evenings, were entertained in a guest suite for cocktails and dinner. One evening, Foster Brooks, the comedian famous for giving imitations of an inebriated after-dinner speaker, dropped in and was convincingly funny. We met several people we knew from Jacksonville, all of whom were there with a party of race enthusiasts who had come to see the horse of a well-known Floridian owner who claimed his horse was going to win. We should have listened to their advice because their horse did win, the first filly to do so.
In Evanston, the Kobe Steel start-up engineer was already having problems with the nitrogen plant. The heat exchangers were copied from the air plant cycles used in the thirties and forties and consisted of a pair of alternating accumulators that took turns being cooled by the cold product gases and when switched, being warmed by the incoming air. These also served by freezing out any atmospheric moisture and solidifying the carbon dioxide in the air as a rime on the accumulator surfaces. Over the years, this had long been found to be a very inefficient way to do both functions and it was in-excusable for Kobe in 1980 to use that system. The in-efficient heat transfer caused by the accumulating solids made running at the design level of air flow impossible and frequent shut-downs for a two day period needed to de-rime the exchangers and to cool everything back down to liquid air temperatures was totally unacceptable to Chevron because of the missed product revenue. Getting the Kobe people to understand this was not easy and it was decided that I and Al Domeshek would go to Japan to explain the urgency and to seek a solution. This was near the end of the year and while we were arranging to go there was a large explosion in the cold box and Al, who was in the control room at the time immediately had everything shut down so an inspection could be made. I immediately flew out to investigate the cause and to somehow explain to the customer that there would be no nitrogen for a while. When we decided what had happened, our trip to Japan became more urgent and that is another memory for another day.