Building the WAG Oil Pipeline

The WAG Oil Pipeline is an interconnect oil pipeline transporting Gippsland crude oil between the Esso/BHP crude oil storage facility at Westernport to refineries at Altona and Geelong. Completed in 1972, the development of the pipeline involved challenges during both the planning and construction phases.

The Westernport – Altona – Geelong (WAG) Pipeline was constructed and commissioned in 1972 by WAG Pipeline Pty Ltd, in which Shell had a 52.3 per cent interest Mobil 31 per cent and Esso Standard Oil (Australia) had 16.7 per cent.

It was a big project for the times, with the original plans calling for the laying of a 24 inch diameter, 130 km pipeline from the tank farm at Westernport to Petroleum Refineries of Australia (PRA) at Altona (now Mobil Altona Refinery) and a 16 inch diameter continuation line to Shell’s refinery at Geelong.

A notice was published by the Ministry of Fuel and Power on 29 January 1970 advertising the proposed route. Meanwhile, Price Coatings advised that they had been awarded the coating contract for the 24 inch diameter section and Shaw Pipe Protection for the 53 km long 16 inch diameter section from Altona to Geelong. Price Coating proposed to use coal tar enamel and Shaw to coat with Yellow jacket, and Asphalt enamel supplied by Shell for the last 9 km. At that stage Shaw expected to receive pipe at its Broadmeadows Plant in February 1970.

Tenders for the construction of the pipeline were also expected to be out in February 1970, dependent on objections to the pipeline being resolved and a permit and licence issued.

However, on 1 April 1970 the company lost its battle to lay the pipeline across Port Phillip Bay when the Victorian Government rejected their proposal. The Victorian Minister for Fuel and Power Jim Balfour said later that Cabinet had rejected the proposal because of the risk, no matter how small, of an oil pipeline under Port Phillip Bay causing pollution. Interestingly, at the same time a study approved the offshore route from Moorabbin to Altona for an ethane pipeline which was eventually built after a huge fight with environmentalists and the socialist left.

A WAG Pipeline spokesman then said that the task ahead was to examine possible land routes. The new land route to take the pipeline around Port Phillip Bay was released in October 1970 and reported to cost no more than the route under the bay.

The new 135 km route, to run through Moorabbin to Brighton and closely follow Port Phillip Bay through Elwood, St Kilda and South Melbourne, was expected to cost $13 million.

In an editorial in The Age, the above-mentioned city councils were told that they had no cause for complaint if the pipeline was going through their roads and disrupting traffic. The Age stated that this was due to the councils’ opposition to the pipeline being constructed through the bay.

WAG hoped to get the pipeline licence for the construction early in 1971 with construction expected to be completed eight to twelve months later.

Meanwhile, the fate of the pipeline was still at the mercy of Victoria’s 26 rebel unions. Union spokesman Ken Carr said, on hearing that the land route had been approved and that Councils were still objecting to it, “if we don’t like it we won’t build it”. Mr Carr said that the union would prefer to see a pipeline corridor around the outskirts of Melbourne. He said this could easily follow the route of the State Electricity Commission easement that rings outer Melbourne suburbs.

Contracts to construct the pipeline were awarded to Saipem Australia Ltd, Eric Newham (Wallerawang) Pty Ltd and Australian Pipeline Construction Pty Ltd (APC). Tom Hoffman and his second in charge Bernie Newcombe ran the Newham’s spread with Dick Findlay, a very able welder and construction supervisor who was later to die in a car accident on a pipeline job in New South Wales.

Many pipeliners went on from the WAG Pipeline to make their mark in the industry, including Rod Davis, who is now a Senior Construction Superintendent with Nacap. Geneil Haley, John Brennan, Gordon Mckenzie, Jim Strange and Benny Graham all worked for APC on the WAG pipeline. At the time APC was run by Carter Johnson who was to take a major role in laying the controversial ethane pipeline across the bay. This resulted in machinery APC were using on the WAG Pipeline being sabotaged, with acid poured into the engines of earthmovers and other equipment smashed.

Pipeline Technologists Pty Ltd (PLT) was the engineering company responsible for design, engineering and construction supervision. PLT brought out American chief inspectors as Australian inspectors who were not considered, at that time, to be sufficiently experienced.

The final, and one of the most difficult, links in the WAG Pipeline was the crossing of the Yarra River. McConnell Dowell won the contract. The complexity of the task was increased by the old Hobson’s Bay Sewer that had to be removed; the flow of almost constant shipping up and down the Yarra; and, in this section the 24 inch WAG Pipeline was to be paralleled by a 30 inch Gas & Fuel Corporation natural gas pipeline to be installed at the same time. On the plus side, the river has little current and tide range was two and a half feet. The width of the crossing was 316 m, with the river dredged to 15 m to allow for the removal of the sewer.

The 24 inch WAG Pipeline crossing was completed in June 1972 and the 30 inch diameter pipeline crossing was completed in August. Both pipelines originally sat too high in the trench and were jetted in and water added for extra weight. Following this they both settled into place. Both pipes were concrete coated to 2.25 inch and 5 inch thickness for the 24 inch and 30 inch respectively.

McConnell Dowell then covered the pipe with crushed rock to a level 1.5 m above the pipe. Supervisory personnel on the crossing were Project Manager Stuart McDonald, Project Engineer Darrell Carpenter, Project Designer Brian Wilson, Marine Engineer Hank van Smet, and Foreman Jim Gubb.

The pipeline was fully constructed and commissioned by the end of 1972, and is still operating efficiently after 38 years of continual service.

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