In December 2013 Geoff Balmer announced his retirement from APA Group and the Australian pipeline industry after an influential and successful 35-year career. Originally working for the Pipeline Authority of South Australia, Geoff has been an integral part of the South Australian pipeline industry in particular, and his exceptional welding knowledge and experience is held in high regard by those who have worked with him and learnt from him.
In 1968 Geoff completed a five-year apprenticeship as a boilermaker and welder in Port Pirie, South Australia. He then moved to Whyalla and worked in the shipyards for seven years. When the shipyards closed in 1977 his family decided to move to Adelaide and by chance he called into the then Pipeline Authority of South Australia (PASA) reception to inquire about what was involved in a Pipeline Operator Class B position.
“I had no idea what the pipeline industry was about. It was explained to me that I would be engaged as Pipeline Operator Class B/Welder and my role would require me to do activities, including welding fabrication, right-of-way (ROW) civil works, pipeline surveillance, landowner liaison, excavation work, pipeline coating, sandblasting, filter changes, pigging and whatever else was required to support the pipeline.
“The company would teach me to drive a crane, backhoe, forklift and any other training required to carry out this work. Coming from the very militant, unionised working environment in the shipyards in the 70s to this type of multi-skilled working environment with no unions appealed to me. This was the start of my journey in the pipeline industry.”
Geoff worked his way through the ranks at PASA and its successive companies. His first promotion was to the position of Assistant Supervisor of the pipeline team looking after pipeline surveillance, and ROW and facility maintenance. He then moved into a newly developed pipeline welding and construction team, which he enjoyed and remained in for some time in various capacities.
“During this period we worked on many projects in conjunction with PASA’s operations guys based in Peterborough. Our responsibilities included workshop construction of the piping and facilities to the eventual hot taps, stopples and tie-ins.
“These were interesting times when we did everything in-house from start to finish. Working alongside people like Pat O’Dea, who is now with South East Australia Gas, with his knowledge and experience in excavations, coatings and hot tap and stopple activities, had a big impact on my career.”
Geoff’s resume of pipeline work is impressive to say the least. His experience includes work on the Moomba to Adelaide Pipeline, the Moomba to Port Bonython Liquids Pipeline, the South East Pipeline System, the Riverland and Mildura Pipeline System, the Pilbara Pipeline System, the South West Queensland (SWQ) Pipeline, the QSN and QSN Link pipelines, the Roma to Gladstone Pipeline and the Roma to Brisbane Pipeline – to name a few.
When asked which of these projects was most memorable to work on, Geoff says it was the Moomba to Port Bonython Liquids Pipeline and the QSN Link that he remembers most strongly; the liquids pipeline because of the challenge of repairing cracked main line valve (MLV) bypass valve bodies, which involved travelling the pipeline and installing ice plugs on the bypass pipework, dismantling the valve, completing the weld repair, and assembling the valve with new replacement seals.
“We had fabricated a bolt-on cylinder, filled it with methanol and had dry ice flown in by light plane for each site; maintaining a seal and controlling the temperatures were issues we had to overcome.”
Geoff says the QSN Link Project stood out for him as he was responsible for its commissioning and says he enjoyed the multitude of responsibilities that went with the role, including in-service welding, hot tap and stopples, tie-ins, and the commissioning of the MLVs, and meter and regulation station facilities.
Surely having worked on this many major Australian pipeline projects means that Geoff has some interesting and funny stories to share, but he says he is staying loyal to the sentiment that whatever happens on the trip stays on the trip.
“I think I will take the easy way out and use this as an excuse not to embarrass anyone; however we did have some good, fun times, particularly on one occasion when someone pretended to be a doctor when his on-call pager went off one night in the pub,” he says.
“The best part of working in the pipeline industry is the people. Over the years I have made many good and hopefully lifelong friends. I can honestly say the people I have worked with throughout my time in the industry have made my work enjoyable.
“There are several people that I am exceptionally grateful to as they have, in some way, been responsible for the promotions that enabled me to reach the level I achieved within my organisations. They include David Nunn, Edwin DePrinse, Tawake Rakai, James Smith and Clive D’Cruz; however, there are many others who have supported and mentored me throughout my time.”
One of those who Geoff mentions, Edwin DePrinse, says he learnt a lot from working with Geoff on the Moomba to Adelaide Pipeline, and he has stayed in close contact with Geoff throughout his career.
“It’s not only the technical stuff I learnt from Geoff; I learnt a lot about how to carry oneself, treat others and work ethic. A lot of the time it is about getting the job done – Geoff was never a clock-watcher. He had a lot of field technicians reporting to him and he never shouted or ripped strips off them but the way he carried himself commanded a lot of respect,” says Mr DePrinse.
“I think the way Geoff has managed things on the Moomba to Adelaide Pipeline and the SWQ Pipeline has made a sustained contribution to the industry. Through his experience and knowledge, Geoff knows how to do tricky weld-ins, tie-ins and handover of operations, and he has done that in a quiet manner and done it really well. If we were to get a consultancy or contractors in it would have cost a fortune.”
With the sale of PASA and the birth of Epic Energy, Geoff was promoted to a managerial role with various responsibilities, including operations and maintenance, pipeline and regulatory compliance, and contractor administration for pipeline operations and maintenance contracts throughout SA, Western Australia and Queensland.
In addition to his paid work, Geoff has been an important and respected member of APIA’s Pipeline Operators Group (POG) for many years and he has always been keen to share his experiences with new members of POG.
In 2013 Epic Energy was purchased by APA Group and Geoff completed his last 12 months of employment working with Craig Connor, whom he first met 30 years ago when Craig demonstrated how to carry out a hot cut and hot welding on a pipeline.
Reflecting on how the industry has changed during his time, Geoff says there have been many changes since “the original days of driving to Moomba in a non-air-conditioned car in a pair of stubbies and a black singlet”.
“Ownership, organisational and operational changes happen frequently these days and you have to be able to adapt to change to succeed.
“Safety is one of the most obvious areas of change for the better. Although we never intended to be unsafe in the early days, the awareness and cultural changes in safety today make you realise how lucky we were not to have had more incidents.”
Change also has its own challenges and Geoff says that keeping good, young engineers in an organisation is a real challenge these days, with the trend being for the younger guys to move around from one organisation to another.
In addition, he says the industry has good safety systems with inductions and forms; however, we need to be careful not to overload the system with more forms and inductions for the sake of ticking a box to say we have done more.
Before Geoff headed off to spend more time with the family and to travel (none of the remote areas in Australia with the “˜heat, dust and flies’ are on his list), he gave some valuable advice to new entrants to Australia’s pipeline industry: “I have
always encouraged younger engineers to make a career out of working in the pipeline industry.
“My advice to the new guys is to get out of the office and into the field as much as you can. Knowing how to do something is one thing, but knowing what to do when things turn ugly is another and this can only come from experience you gain in