The Roma to Brisbane Natural Gas Pipeline - 1969

Then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen opens the Roma Brisbane Gas Pipeline, March 1969.

Then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen opens the Roma Brisbane Gas Pipeline, March 1969.

In this second installment of our look at Australia’s oil and gas pipeline history, we look at the construction of Australia’s first natural gas pipeline.

The introduction of cross-country pipeline construction techniques into Australia on the Moonie Pipeline in 1964 seems, some 40 years later, to have been a catalyst for major energy infrastructure developments in Australia during the late 1960s.

By 1970, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne were all being supplied by natural gas pipelines, and Perth followed suit by the end of 1971. It is probably relevant to remind readers that at the start the of the decade of the ‘swinging sixties’, Australia was almost totally dependent on imported oil and that gas consumed was made from black or brown coal.

Whilst Union Oil had been busy finding oil in South East Queensland (1961-2), another group, Australian Associated Oilfields, had been exploring and proving natural gas deposits some distance to the north-west around Roma (1952 – 1961) and Phillips Petroleum had discovered natural gas reserves around Gilmore in Central Queensland (1964). During this period in Victoria, a joint venture of BHP & Esso were establishing large reserves of both oil and natural gas in the Bass Strait (1965 onwards). In northern South Australia, Delhi Petroleum and Santos had discovered commercial quantities of gas in the Cooper Basin (1963 onwards).

At the same time Exoil found gas and oil at Mereenie, west of Alice Springs in 1964. Shortly afterwards in 1965 and also in the Northern Territory, Magellan Petroleum discovered the Palm Valley gas fields. Whilst this was happening, WAPET in Western Australia, who had already found traces of oil in the Carnarvon Basin in WA in 1952, struck oil on Barrow Island (1964), in the north west of WA, and then found gas at Dongara some three hundred kilometres north of Perth in 1966. The following year saw Woodside starting work on exploring their holdings on the North West Shelf of WA.

A lot of oil and gas had been discovered, most of it a long way from centres where it could be used, or processed. The scene was set for the emergence of a new industry – pipeline construction!

The lead times between the discovery of commercially exploitable quantities of oil and gas, and delivery to either a refinery or to a city gate/sales outlet are usually considerable. Some of the major factors which affect the lead times include negotiations over sales contracts, government licensing, environmental impact assessments, pipe mill rolling times, and seasonal weather conditions.

It was inevitable that whilst the end date for supply to a customer would be fixed and ‘set in concrete’, delays prior to the commencement of construction frequently turned a workable time frame into a mad rush! However, in the initial flush of construction projects that started in the period spanning from 1966 to 1970, late starting dates had one redeeming feature – usually the contract price was sufficient and the client amenable to enable construction to be accelerated.

The scene had been set for expansion and once again, Queensland came up with another first – a 435 km gas pipeline to take natural gas from a valve site known as ML1A at Wallumbilla (30 km east of Roma) into Brisbane, with the main customer being a fertiliser manufacturer.

After six years of protracted negotiations and almost 12 months in construction, the Roma-Brisbane natural gas pipeline was officially opened on March 17 1969 by Mr Bjelke-Petersen, Premier of Queensland. It was justifiably hailed as a triumph for Queensland.

Bruce McCaul, a very well known figure in the oil and gas exploration and pipeline industry, was involved in the development of the Roma gasfields. Bruce spoke about the opening ceremony at a later celebration which marked the 25th anniversary of the pipeline.

In describing the race to bring gas into Brisbane ahead of the gas line from Bass Strait to Melbourne, Bruce described the preparations for the official turning on of the gas at the gate station at Wallumbilla near Roma. After 25 years, he felt he could safely reveal that “half the pipeline had been filled with gas to 1000 psi. To hear the gas move through the line, I had to remove the gas from the station piping at Wallumbilla to atmospheric pressure, so that when the Premier opened the valve, gas rushed ‘backwards’ into the station and made an appropriate hissing noise.”

Queenslanders were proud of the fact that Brisbane was the first capital city in Australia to have a supply of natural gas for commercial and domestic use. They beat Victoria to the post by a short neck, with the Longford-Dandenong (Bass Strait to Melbourne) natural gas pipeline due to open later that month.*

Meanwhile, South Australia had the Moomba - Adelaide natural gas pipeline under construction but it was due for completion by the end of 1969.

The 435 km Roma-Brisbane pipeline was originally owned and operated by Associated Pipelines Limited and was constructed by Thiess Bros Pty Ltd. Associated Pipelines was formed in 1964, a confident move at the time which was later justified by the large gas contracts it was able to negotiate.

Associated Pipelines entered an agreement with Southern Union Gas Company to come into the project on a 50-50 basis. Southern Union Gas Company, based in Dallas, was a substantial integrated natural gas utility in the United States. It was involved in practically every aspect of natural gas from exploration to selling at wholesale and retail levels.

During the nine years from February 1960 the Associated Group spent more than $A11 million on exploration in the Roma area alone including $A9 million on drilling 202 wholly owned wells. By May 1964, the group had 18 wells cased for gas production in Bony Creek, Richmond and the Blyth Creek fields as well as one at Hospital Hill and two at Timbury Hills. The available reserves from these fields far outstripped the needs of the Roma area, and a pipeline to Brisbane became essential to market this gas.

The existing coal gas sales to Brisbane were equivalent to only three million cubic feet of natural gas per day, which was not enough to make the project economically viable. However, the fertiliser industry seemed to be a logical large user of natural gas and the Associated Group together with the Queensland government made extensive inquiries both within Australia and internationally to establish such a project in Brisbane.

In 1967, Austral-Pacific Fertilisers Ltd sponsored by Dow Chemical Company and Chicago meat group Swift and Company, contracted to buy at least 71 billion cubic feet of natural gas over 15 years to produce ammonia fertilisers at a $A40 million plant to be constructed at Gibson Island on the Brisbane River.

South Brisbane Gas Company signed a contract for a further 20 billion cubic feet over the same period. The two contracts provided a minimum basis for the economic construction of a pipeline from Roma to Brisbane.

Construction of the Roma-Brisbane Pipeline was estimated to cost $A11 million dollars and was financed by equity and loans from the Associated Group, Southern Union Gas, Bank of New South Wales and Australian financial institutions, with the loan money guaranteed by the Queensland government.

After the worldwide call for tenders in 1967, the contract for the construction was won by Thiess Bros Pty Ltd. Thiess also built the pipeline gathering system on the Roma gas fields.

There were many difficulties to overcome. Bruce McCaul, at the 25th anniversary of the pipeline, highlighted the difficulty of obtaining equipment off the shelf in Australia during the 1960s.

Thiess said one of the initial problems it had to overcome was the shortage of qualified welders. The welding method known as “downhill welding” was relatively new to Australia. Thiess brought out American and Canadian welders and set up special welding schools on-site. It took about four weeks to train a welder in the new techniques.

Fred Verna and Bob Papp, both long time welders in the Australian pipeline industry, worked on this pipeline. In an interview with Fred and Bob at the Pipeline Publications office in Melbourne on June 8, 2005, they recalled their experiences on the Roma-Brisbane pipeline.

Fred Verna started by saying, “I left a job in Bass Strait with Ingram to go the Roma-Brisbane Gas Pipeline. And when I got there I was kept on standby for a week. The union rep, he kept me on standby because I did not have my transfer. If you remember in those days you had to have a transfer to go from one state to another. They kept me on standby until the transfer came through from Victoria. I had to stay in the camp and do nothing for one week. That’s how strong the union was in those days!”

Bob Papp reminded Fred about the camp saying, “What a camp that was, we had to wash our own plates and knives and forks!” Fred Verna agreed, “They gave us a knife and a fork and plates and said, ‘when you are finished wash them up and take them back to your room because they are yours and don’t lose them!’ until one day when we had a meeting and threw all the plates in a rubbish bin. From that day on, the camp people washed the dishes.”

Asked about the project Fred Verna said, “The job was good, we had the Americans and the Canadians at that time because they were the chiefs, they were the number one shots. Me and Pappy ran the hot pass when we were first there.” But Bob disagreed claiming, “We were on capping first then we went to hot pass. We were a team,” said Fred, “and we stayed together.”

They went on to say that although the Americans and the Canadians had the top jobs they believed they were better welders. “We were not experienced pipeline welders, but we were very good welders,” said Fred.

As it turned out they had a chance to prove their worth. Fred recounts, “As we came close to Dalby the front end guys used to go the pub every lunch time and one day they didn’t come back until 2 or 3 o’clock. Me and Pappy were having lunch there and the foreman approached us and said, ‘what do you reckon boys, can you do a bit of front end welding?’ And Bob said, ‘I thought you’d never ask!’ And that’s the time me and Pappy went on the front end and we finished that day on the front end.

“And when the original front end guys came back they got put on the capping and they were pretty upset about that. But when we got the numbers up, and the results came back and they were all good, they never got the job back. On the very first full day we made 310 pipes, where the others were struggling to make 250. And from that day on, we welded on the front end.”

The contract for the thin walled steel pipe was won by Tubemakers of Australia out of their Kembla Grange plant. During production, Tubemakers experienced difficulties and had to purchase some Japanese pipe to meet part of the main line requirements. Southern Union Gas provided experienced people to design and supervise the construction. The pipe was manually welded with over 30,000 welds joining the average 47 ft (14.3m) long pipes.

Inspection of Australian pipe produced at Newcastle and Wollongong was carried out by Solus Schall, represented by Brian Beckett. Western Transport hauled the pipe. The plastic tape (coating was over the ditch wrapping) was supplied by Kendall Polyken and Orifice Metering by Daniel Industries both represented by Ken N. Wilson out of Brisbane.

Thiess, in a publication entitled ‘Natural Gas Pipelines’, claim they were awarded the $A3.6 million contract for the construction of the Roma-Brisbane Pipeline by Associated Pipelines for commencement in 1968.

According to Thiess, the contract comprised the overland construction of:

  • 435 km of 270 mm and 320 mm diameter main line, and included earthworks and trench excavation, stringing and welding of 14.3 metres long pipes, pipe wrapping, lowering and backfilling,
  • 126 km of gathering lines and consumer lines, from 50 mm to 270 mm diameter, with the same work content as on the main line (including earthworks); and,
  • five line stations.

The achieved daily welding production was in excess of 300 joints, using 14 welders. The average length of joint was 14.3 metres. Two welders were used for the stringer bead welding of the joints, the joints being aligned with the use of internal pneumatic clamps. (Fred Verna remembers internal clamps being used but his recollection is that they were mechanical clamps which were wound open and shut with a long handle).

According to Thiess, the pipe wrapping by specialised pipe wrapping machine comprised Polyken tape with an outer kraft paper to protect the permanent pipe coating during the lowering and back-filling operations.

The route of the pipeline traversed a wide variety of terrain including the black soil plains of the Darling Downs, the steep descent of the Main Dividing Range near Toowoomba, and the fully developed areas in Metropolitan Brisbane.

The publication also maintains that, “A substantial proportion of the contract traversed rocky country requiring drilling and blasting and the use of imported material for the pipe bedding and surround. Three major river crossings were included in the contract together with numerous smaller creek crossings. Two of the river crossings involved the drilling and shooting of extensive amounts of rock below water level. The largest river crossing involved was that of Bremer River near Ipswich, which had to be trenched in rock in a tidal section. The profile of the Bremer River also required sections of the pipeline to be progressively welded during the launching operation.

“The overall construction of the whole contract, including testing, was completed in twelve months. The construction of the 435 km of the main line only was carried out within the first 9 months of the contract.

“On March 20 1969, natural gas from 25 wells in the Roma fields was piped 435 km to Brisbane for use in the Gibson Island fertiliser manufacturing complex, which consumes much of the natural gas as feedstock for ammonia production. The domestic consumer connections followed immediately.”

The Roma-Brisbane Gas Pipeline is still in operation. The capacity of the pipeline has been increased with the addition of compressor stations and by staged looping (duplicating) of the line. Construction of a 756 km gas pipeline in 1996 from Ballera tied into the Roma-Brisbane pipeline at Wallumbilla (near Roma) to transport gas from South West Queensland to Brisbane.

*Victoria had the first gas supply by a high pressure gas pipeline with the Morwell to Dandenong pipeline which delivered manufactured gas from the Lurgi brown coal plant. This 18 inch, 129 km pipeline was built by the Gas & Fuel Corporation of Victoria prior to the Moonie Oil pipeline and some industry old timers say this should have qualified it as the first pipeline rather than the Moonie Oil pipeline. We won’t argue with that one except to say the Moonie Oil Pipeline which we did start with was the first to employ the American production style pipelaying techniques. The construction of the ‘Lurgi line’ as it was known is a very interesting story and one we will cover in this series.

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