What Does A Field Right-Of-Way Agent Actually Do?

November 2010 Vol. 237 No. 11

The advantages of utilizing a qualified and knowledgeable field right-of-way agent on pipeline integrity projects can sometimes be overlooked. A right-of-way agent with a firm foundation in pipeline integrity can be a valuable asset to inspectors and constructions crews whose jobs too often expand into dealing with issues that otherwise should be handled by a right-of-way agent.

The problem in many cases is a right-of-way agent is not used at all, or an agent not familiar with integrity projects has simply made a few phone calls and left the scene. With a close working relationship with company right-of-way departments, inspectors, integrity engineers, and construction crews, an involved right-of-way agent can save time, money, and all those little headaches that strain too many projects.

From the start, a right-of-way agent who specializes in pipeline integrity is set apart by utilizing the same data and information that the engineers and inspectors will be using for each dig, the dig sheets. A field agent who can read and understand a dig sheet can save the client a lot of time when it comes to being provided the necessary information to find affected landowners.

In many cases, valuable time is spent between engineers and right-of-way departments marking alignment sheets, locating affected files and pulling easements, and compiling this information for the field agent. The most simple and effective process, however, would be to send the agent the dig sheets. With an AGM list and some competence, the dig sheets will provide the agent with all the information needed to precisely locate affected landowners. By using the dig sheet data, field agents should be able to map out the locations in the same manner they will be chained out and staked on the ground. This method delivers more accurate locations while eliminating the need for right-of-way departments to pull easements and alignment sheets prematurely, or simply to identify ownership. If needed from here, the field agent can afterwards prepare and provide the necessary information to identify files and easements for the digs, freeing up company departments to address more important issues.

While traditionally a right-of-way agent will research ownership by going to county appraisal districts with X marked alignment sheets, a specialized field agent will use the same methods and tools utilized by the inspectors and crews, who depend so much on the quality of their work. Many inspectors will import AGM locations into software such as Delorme Street Atlas, and map out their digs into this software.

Right-of-way agents who are familiar with this process can map their digs in the same manner, ensuring to be on the same page as the rehab crew. After creating this type of map file in Delorme, an agent can accurately measure out or plot GPS coordinates into other useful tools such as Google Earth or ArcGIS Explorer if necessary. With these resources an agent can go to the appraisal district with more updated and accurate information to identify the affected landowners, and do so with fewer mistakes.

Making proper landowner notifications on an integrity project is where the difference between an agent who specializes in integrity work and the average acquisition agent come to light. From this stage forward is where a field right-of-way agent can be the most influential in the outcome of the project. If handled right, an agent can start and maintain a smooth running, efficient project despite unexpected changes, or completely drop the ball and begin a chain of frustrating events.

The mistake most agents make at this stage is to simply make a phone call to the landowners and tell them there will be some maintenance work done on their property, and this is usually all the agent does unless there are damages to settle afterwards. To most landowners, this phone call about “maintenance” suggests there will be some simple, routine right-of-way mowing done and don’t think much of it. That is, until they see the 80,000 lbs. of equipment sitting on their gravel road. This is when the landowner becomes alarmed and confused, and the only person there to deal with the situation is the inspector or construction crew. The right-of-way agent has since moved on.

On the contrary, an agent familiar with integrity projects will always visit each dig location and attempt to make personal contact with the landowners. Face-to-face contact with the landowner accomplishes several things. First and most important, the agent establishes a personal relationship with the landowner and a trust that the agent truly cares about the landowner’s property. This is the time to explain the process, timeline, necessary equipment, and the necessity of the project, so there will be no surprises when digging begins.

Questioning a rancher about his cattle or horses and ensuring him that all precautions will be made to respect their presence will go far in building a good relationship. A landowner who understands the need to be on his property, is comfortable with the equipment and process on his property, knows he has a contact to direct questions and concerns, and is confident property damages will be addressed, is the same landowner who will stay out of the way and let the crews on site do their job.

One of the most important pre-job tasks of the agent should be to secure access to the dig locations. Too often this simple step is omitted by many agents. Access sometimes means simply making sure gates are unlocked or combinations are known. But other times, this could mean contacting additional landowners, noting the presence of load zoned bridges, understanding weather conditions and the terrain to be crossed, securing turnaround and parking locations for haul trucks, or many other aspects that may hold up crews once mobilized.

There is nothing worse on an integrity project than to have equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars per day sitting, waiting on a gate to be unlocked. An agent who understands the access needs of an integrity crew can save a project tons of money and many headaches simply by having access secured beforehand.

After ownership has been identified, proper notifications have been made, and access secured, the agent must be sure that all of this information is put to use. Most right-of-way agents are only familiar with putting together line lists for acquisition projects, usually by entering all the landowner and contact information into a large spreadsheet. On integrity projects, this large compilation of information does little, if any, good, and in most cases only frustrates inspectors trying to decipher it.

Each dig usually will require a maintenance report and an agent familiar with this process will compile landowner names, addresses, phone numbers, access notes, and special restrictions in individual reports, specific to each dig. This is usually more convenient to an inspector preparing a maintenance report, as he can quickly refer to the information needed, or simply throw the agent’s report into the file, without searching through a large spreadsheet and transferring information.

Just as important for an agent to establish a relationship with the landowner, it is important for an agent to establish a relationship with the inspector, engineers, and crew on an integrity project. An agent familiar with integrity work knows that there can be many changes in the scope of work along the way. Weather can cause scheduling changes; equipment can cause delays; inspection can show the need for cutouts; sandblasting can blow holes in pipe; and leaks can be found. With a close relationship with the integrity project manager, an agent can stay up to date and aware of all issues that may change the scope of work initially represented to the landowner. This relationship can also keep a balance between right-of-way departments and integrity departments as well, who too often lack proper communication during a project.

In maintaining a smooth running project, it is very important to keep many landowners included throughout the project. If an agent doesn’t stay involved and in touch, he has no way of letting the landowner know that a joint of pipe will need to be cutout, resulting in the bell hole left open for a couple weeks until the crew returns. The next thing you know, the livestock has strewn orange safety fencing throughout the pasture; the landowner finds an open hole and no crew; he thinks he was lied to from the start; he hasn’t had an update since notification; the pipeline company is hiding something; and all hell breaks loose. An agent with experience in these situations, who will stay in touch with the inspector and in turn give the landowners frequent updates, is definitely an asset during this point in a project.

After the dig is back-filled and the equipment moved out, there are sometimes damages to be settled. Though settling damages can seem straight forward and a process that most any right-of-way agent can handle, there are several advantages to an agent who knows integrity.

First, an experienced agent knows there are not always damages despite what the landowners says. An experienced field agent will have been to the site and knows the potential damages.

Second, an experienced agent was on the site before any equipment and will go back after the equipment is gone, drawing on these visits to know what damages were caused due to project operations. No damages should be settled based on the word of the landowner or the inspector; the agent should always see any damages first hand.

Third, an experienced agent has been here before and has a strong foundation in calculating surface damages. And finally, an experienced agent will always know when to fall back on the easement document and its contractual obligations when dealing with an unreasonable landowner.

On integrity projects, an agent should know that damage negotiations are a balancing act among several factors. Some of these factors include knowing the possibility of returning to that tract in the future, realizing a particular landowner allowed more convenient access instead of forcing equipment to track down the right-of-way, or knowing that the landowner did not fight operations despite horrible weather conditions that may have justified delay. Fairly settling damages, taking care of landowners, but not just opening up the checkbook will be cost effective in the long run. An experienced agent can help find the balance.

Sometimes overlooked, the advantages of utilizing a qualified and knowledgeable field right-of-way agent on integrity projects are truly immeasurable. The cost of employing an agent who specializes in pipeline integrity is minimal compared to the amount the agent can save a projects budget, simply by being involved and one step ahead of the crew. A field agents responsibility on an integrity project is to understand both worlds; the right-of-way department processes, needs, and requirements; and the integrity departments processes, needs, and requirements. An experienced agent who specializes in integrity can mesh these two worlds and be a tremendous and valuable asset to the project. Having a field agent with a firm foundation in the integrity processes involved on a project will revolutionize integrity operations, and ultimately have a positive impact on the integrity of pipelines assets. morgan.christopherl@gmail.com

Author
Christopher Morgan has been working in land and right-of-way related fields for more than 10 years. He graduated with a degree in Agricultural Economics from Texas A&M University, and has been an active member of the International Right of Way Association since 2006. In 2008 Christopher started CM Land Solutions, a contract/sub-contract right of way service company, specializing as a field agent for pipeline operation, maintenance, and integrity matters. He can be reached at Morgan.ChristopherL@gmail.com.