After serving on the APIA Board since October 2008, Kevin Lester was appointed APIA Vice President in October last year. Mr Lester brings 24 years’ experience in the pipeline industry to the role, having started his career with AJ Lucas as a project engineer in 1985.
During his time in the workforce, Mr Lester notes that the most encouraging aspect of the pipeline sector in Australia is the quality of the people involved. “The people in the industry are the constant,” he says. “The industry is full of characters and good people that help make the industry successful.”
A pipeliner in the making
Mr Lester says that he was thrown head first into the pipeline industry, and has never looked back.Article continues below…
After finishing university he commenced employment with AJ Lucas and drove to Brisbane for his first assignment, which was a 4 km aviation fuel pipeline running from the Caltex Terminal, across the old Brisbane Domestic Airport to the JUHI terminal near the old International Airport.
“I stayed in Brisbane until the job was done, some five months later. I was the only staff person onsite. Approvals, safety, quality assurance, procurement, site engineering, project management, commercial management – I did the lot. I learnt the hard way – sink or swim! I think most contractors were the same with their young engineers in those days,” Mr Lester says.
Mr Lester says things are done a bit differently now, but values the experience for its exposure to all activities on a project. “The most important lesson I learnt was that, to get the job done efficiently, you must have daily and effective communication with all the men onsite.”
Mr Lester counts the 680 km SEA Gas Pipeline as one of the most exciting projects he has worked on. The pipeline runs from Port Campbell in Victoria, to Port Adelaide in South Australia.
AJ Lucas constructed the pipeline in a joint venture with Spiecapag from 2002–04.
Mr Lester was the Deputy Project Manager and worked closely with Spiecapag Project Manager Yves Pasquier. He says “It was a great opportunity to build a wonderful integrated team, which is what we did, a mix of Spiecapag and Lucas personnel and then some great locals.
“The project was a huge challenge in terms of schedule, logistics, landowners, approvals, design and procurement, which in turn created an exciting accomplishment. And we delivered a project on time and on budget, so we made a few dollars which is always a good achievement.”
Efficiency – the key
As noted in the above projects, Mr Lester says that it is efficiency that drives the industry – contractors must be innovative and efficient to deliver projects on time and return a profit.
He says that pipeline construction methodology in Australia has evolved with the development of a middle management of pipeline engineers who have organised the work around less equipment and resources than what might be the case internationally. “This has helped Australia become very innovative. Pipelines have become less labour intensive with the advent of more sophisticated equipment such as hydraulic trenching machines, padding machines, vacuum lifts, and horizontal directional drilling rigs, etcetera.”
As a result of the size and complexity of current Australian projects, Mr Lester says that contract conditions are becoming more onerous and demanding of the contractor’s time.
“Every new project we tender on appears to have a new contract with a list of every-growing conditions – fodder for lawyers.”
Although he would like to see these issues between owner and contractor diminish, he notes “The pipeline constructor needs to be much more commercially astute than they have been in the past, as the rate of spend on a pipeline project when one is employing labour and equipment directly is huge. The commercial outcome of a pipeline project can move quickly and hence requires significant management onsite.
“The secret is to be well planned and organised and have good leadership on the ground,” he says.
Addressing issues within the industry
Mr Lester sees training and skilling as obvious key issues for the industry to go forward, and are two of many issues he would like to see addressed during his time as an APIA Board Member.
“With an ever growing mining sector and projected growth in gas developments, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia, there will be an increasing demand for skilled labour.
“In the short term, wages will increase and in the long term we will need significant training to educate the younger generation coming through, as well as importing some additional key resources.”
He stresses that training needs to be encouraged at a corporate level. “There is training available if the individuals and the company want to do it. The companies that develop and retain their people are the ones that will succeed, the ones that don’t will fail.”
AJ Lucas is dealing with this issue in several ways. “A number of courses and individual training are being rolled out for our young engineers. We carry out specialised training for the workforce on specific projects and new equipment, generally in the early stages of a project. We are looking forward to implementing some of the competencies in this area currently under development,” Mr Lester says.
Mr Lester notes that it is encouraging that the wider industry also has a number of initiatives currently under development. These are:
1. Pipeline Engineer Training; some of this work will now be done by the Energy Pipelines CRC; 2. Competency training for blue collar workers; 3. Pipeliners Passbook; and, 4. Training courses by individual members such as PipeEd.
Mr Lester takes heart that the number of incidents and injuries per million man-hours in construction over time has fallen steadily over the last 40 years. Closing the gap to have no incidents and injuries will be a bit more challenging. “It’s the old saying the first 80 per cent is easier than the last 20 per cent. I am however absolutely certain that safety can continue to improve. I think the gains will come from developing safety at a more personal level and getting workers to take more responsibility for themselves and their mates,” he said.
Mr Lester also emphasises that the pipeline industry has made huge advances in safety, but that the same needs to happen on the environmental side.
Mr Lester is looking forward to helping implement new and tested ideas during his time as APIA Vice President, in addition to managing AJ Lucas’ pipeline of projects.
AJ Lucas has recently completed the 113 km first stage of looping on Jemena’s Queensland Gas Pipeline (see page 88). Mr Lester says the company also currently has a team carrying out stress corrosion cracking work for APA Group on the Moomba to Sydney gas pipeline. “We have been doing this for five years now and are currently in the first year of a three year contract.”
In addition, the company has a team established in Perth to complete the Barrow Island horizontal directional drill (HDD) shore approach associated with Chevron’s Gorgon LNG Development.
AJ Lucas is scheduled to start civil works onsite in May.
Mr Lester looks forward to helping AJ Lucas grow its business in the pipeline, HDD, water, and oil and gas sectors, and is excited about the upcoming possibilities.
He says “I would like to see local pipeline contractors work with international players on the larger projects, so that owners see that a local/international combination is a good result for their project.”