2015: Heralding a new era: memories of constructing the Roma-Brisbane Pipeline

The 440 km Roma to Brisbane natural gas pipeline is Australia’s oldest gas pipeline, and heralded the dawn of an industry – not only in Queensland, but across the nation.

Bruce McCaul was a Field Manager in Roma for Associated Group AAR during the construction of the pipeline and recounts his memories to The Australian Pipeliner.

The Roma to Brisbane Pipeline (RBP), originally 50 per cent owned and operated by Associated Group of Companies (AAR Group), first came into operation in March 1969, and is now capable of delivering 75 PJ/a to Brisbane and other regional centres.

The RBP was the first major gas development in the region, and indeed Australia, after natural gas was first discovered in the Roma region in 1900.

Early attempts to capitalise on the resource over the first half of the century led to the drilling of further exploration wells, and consequent construction of a few gas adsorption plants in and around the town.

However, it wasn’t until the AAR Group – composed of Associated Australian Oilfields, Associated Freney Oil Fields, the Papuan Apinaipi Petroleum Company, Interstate Oil Limited and Sleigh Exploration – was formed in 1961 that gas exploration and production activity significantly ramped-up.

By 1964, the Group had 21 wells cased for production, however, the available reserves far outstripped the needs of the Roma area and a pipeline to Brisbane became essential to market the gas.

Roma had a population of about 5000 and although it serviced a large rural area, growing cattle, sheep and wheat, only the town powerhouse and hospital used sufficient energy to warrant a gas connection.

Welders Fred Verna (left) and Bob Papp during the construction of the Roma Brisbane Pipeline in 1968. 

Commercialising early Australian gas

The following years saw the Group, with the support of the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland Government, make enquiries around the world to various fertiliser groups to buy gas from the Roma fields to feed new industrial plants, with sites at both Roma and Brisbane considered.

The AAR Group Senior Management team who led the pipeline project development were Doug Traves, Managing Director and Syd Stormonth, Finance Director, while the overall ‘Roma Development Project’ came to fruition through the drive of Greg Swindon, Exploration Manager and Roy Richter’s drilling expertise.

A whole group of some of Australia’s early oil and gas exploration and development pioneers contributed to the final commercialisation of Roma gas.

The breakthrough to commercialisation came in 1967 when Austral-Pacific Fertilizers was contracted to buy 71,000 MMcf of natural gas over 15 years to produce ammonia fertiliser at a $40 million plant constructed on Gibson Island in Brisbane.

This was followed by South Brisbane Gas Company signing a contract for a further 29,000 MMcf for the same period.

These two contracts provided the minimum basis for the economic construction of the pipeline.

While these contracts enabled the pipeline to be constructed, it was the financing of the pipeline that proved to be the most difficult aspect of getting the project off the ground.

“The Roma to Brisbane Pipeline was unique in that it is the only transmission line I know of in Australia where the producers stood last in line to get payment for their gas,” says Mr McCaul.

“The Queensland Government guaranteed some of the loans, but all loans had to be serviced from the pipeline income before the producers could get their gas payment, in case the pipeline did not financially ‘perform’.

“Only the minimum of gas reserves(for the two major initial contracts) had been proven at the time the commitment was made to build the pipeline, and Brisbane did not have the additional assured gas market demand sufficient enough to  guarantee the pipeline’s overall economics.”

American influence

While negotiations were underway to find a customer for the gas, international assistance was needed to construct the RBP, due to limited local knowledge.

“We did not have the experience in long distance high-pressure transmission pipelines, even though we had constructed about 30 km of small diameter lines in and around Roma,” recalls Mr McCaul.

“This is why we partnered with Southern Union Gas (SUG) from the United States for the project.

“SUG, based in Dallas, Texas, entered into the pipeline project on a Joint Venture basis and was involved in practically every phase of the business.”

From exploration and production through to gathering, transporting, distributing and selling at wholesale and retail levels, SUG played a role in the birth of the gas industry in Australia.

“SUG sent us a number of specialists to supervise construction and carry out the design, planning, materials specification, supervision and welding training,” said Mr McCaul.

SUG Design Engineer Robert Jebavy and Construction Manager Amos Persons played major roles in the project.

“Unlike some pipelines that came later, there was not a large number of overseas people in addition to the people from Southern Union Gas (except for some specialist welders) involved in the construction,” said Mr McCaul.

“The rest of the work force were locals who already had experience in large civil and mining operations and were given additional training on the job.”

Pipeline construction

Estimated to cost $11 million (approximately $99 million in today’s currency), the construction contract (after world-wide tenders were called) was awarded to Queensland-based civil engineering and construction company, Thiess Brothers, who commenced work on 11 March 1968.

Mr McCaul remembers that when construction started, few envisaged the industry that would grow from their work.

“We were indeed pioneering a new industry, and I realise this more than ever when I look at the map of Australia showing the number of pipelines built over the last 46 years.”

Indeed, gas field development and pipeline construction was so new to Australia that Mr McCaul had to use everyday supermarket items to assist with the works.

“There were few ‘off-the-shelf’ equipment items available, and shipping times from the U.S. were long,” said Mr McCaul.

“For example, to make mist extractors for supply gas to instruments, I ‘cornered the market’ in Roma for old style wire mesh pot scrubbers to fill sections of pipe as a condensate separators.

“I bought Woolworths and two local corner stores out of stock!”

The 273.05 mm diameter mainline pipe employed three different wall thicknesses depending on location: in open country 4.77 mm thickness was used, in the vicinity of country towns and along roads a 5.15 mm thickness, and for all road crossings and through the last 20 km of the pipeline, where land for urban development set aside, the pipe had a wall thickness of 6.35 mm.

Delivered in lengths averaging 14.32 m, the pipes were welded together by hand by a team who completed over 42,000 welds by the time the pipeline was finished.

Some of the RBP’s welding team included pipeline legends Fred Verna and Bob Papp, originally from Italy and Hungary respectively, who set a welding record for the number of pipeline welds on the RBP construction.

Coated and wrapped in plastic tape after final inspection, the pipeline was lowered with a minimum cover of 73 cm, with the surface then restored.

Mr McCaul recalls that, while the construction itself was relatively straight forward, it was a very different process in terms of land holder negotiation and access compared to modern times.

“Unlike today’s environment, we had few land access problems,” said Mr McCaul.

“Landholders accepted that, apart from some short disruption in the construction phase, they would quickly regain the use of their and thought compensation for disruption was fair.

“We only had about half a dozen negative landholders, and our Premier at the time, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, said the pipeline was ‘important for the development of the state’ and therefore no individuals should prevent or delay it!”

Safety on the line

Speaking on how times have changed since the RBP’s construction, Mr McCaul says the most obvious difference between then and modern times is the formalisation of considerations for safety.

“There was very little in the way of ‘formal’ safety training as it is these days,” recalls Mr McCaul.

“Nearly all safety precautions were addressed by ‘on-the-job’ training, with new workers operating under the supervision of the few who did have high-pressure or construction experience in similar industries.”

Apart from the obvious more formal considerations for safety, Mr McCaul sees the biggest change in pipeline construction as the coating technology.

“The RBP was bare pipe wrapped over the trench by a complex machine of chains and belts, which was difficult to operate consistently with the correct tension,” said Mr McCaul.

“The pipe had to be cleaned of rust and mud (particularly after rain) before it was primed and wrapped, which meant sometimes pre-running the tape machine with counter-rotating wire brushes several times before taping.

“Surprisingly, the old technology tape, when applied correctly, is still in good order today on some sections of the pipeline after 46 years.”

Commencing operations

Officially inaugurated in ceremonies in both Roma and Brisbane, the RBP commenced operations in March 1969.

In a speech at the ‘RBP 25 years’ celebration’ lunch, Mr McCaul explained a few issues he had with the inauguration ceremony.

“I was in charge of the official turning-on of the gas at the gate station ay Wallumbilla, near Roma, on the 16 of March,” explained Mr McCaul.

“Unfortunately, we looked like being a day or two late in actually having gas right to the end of the pipeline in Brisbane, as there was more slush from the hydrostatic pressure testing to be removed, from the last section in the Brisbane area, than had been expected.

“Most of the pipeline from Roma to Brisbane had been filled with gas to 1000 PSI, and to hear gas move through a line it is necessary to have a large pressure drop, otherwise it is almost inaudible.

“We therefore had to remove the gas from the station piping at Wallumbilla to atmospheric pressure, so that when the Premier at the time opened the valve, gas rushed backwards into the station and made an appropriate hissing noise.”

A family affair

The RBP and the Roma gas region has had McCaul involvement from its inception through to today.

Partnering Mr McCaul while he was involved in in the exploration and development of pilot projects in the Roma area was his wife, Victoria, who was an employee of AAR Ltd and Richter Drilling, whose operations were necessary to get the pipeline off the ground.

“Victoria then became savvy in the operations and methods that are today known as ‘land management and liaison’, while we lived in Roma for four years pre- and post-pipeline construction,” said Mr McCaul.

Based in Roma from 1968 to 1971, Mr McCaul became the Area Manager for the Group while seismic, drilling and gathering system construction operations continued.

After a three-year stint in Indonesia, where he managed the Group’s drilling operations in Sumatra, and oil production from Seram Island, Mr McCaul returned to the RBP in 1974 as General Manager of the pipeline.

He took over from Rudi Motto (Southern Union gas) who had managed the pipeline’s first few years in the operations phase.

It was during this period that Mr McCaul “collected” four sons:

  • Tor – now Comet Ridge Managing Director;
  • Burk – now Origin/APLNG Queensland Pipeline Operations Manager;
  • Rohan – now an APA Group Mechanical Technician (Roma- Brisbane Pipeline ), and;
  • Case – now a LogiCamms Engineer.

Burk and Rohan – who each worked on the RBP for 20 years – were later joined by Case, and they all worked concurrently on the RBP for nearly ten years, while Tor was involved in the gathering lines during university holidays.

“When our three eldest boys  were in their early-mid teens, I combined some weekend camping trips with inspections along the western half of the right-of-way (ROW), with overnight camps on properties whose owners I knew well,” said Mr McCaul.

“From these trips they developed an interest and learned something of pipeline cathodic protection systems, compressor station layout and operations and ROW problems.

“As youngsters they were never far away from a pipeline environment and people, so it is little wonder that they all entered the pipeline/gas industry.”

A word for young pipeliners

When asked his views on the current state on Australia’s pipeline industry, and whether he had any advice for future generations of pipeliners, Mr McCaul delivered some sound advice.

“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If you need a compressor station, heater facility, CO2 extraction plant or whatever, find one of the size type you need which works well and copy it,” explains Mr McCaul.

“I hear of many facilities built today which are costly, inefficient and over-engineered where there are many examples to copy from that are far less costly and much easier to operate safely.”

Another area where Mr McCaul offers his advice is the employment of workers on construction projects, a very relevant topic in today’s world of fly-in fly-out workers.

“It is more efficient to employ and train local people (as many as available) for both construction, and particularly, long-term operations, as you retain them and their knowledge for long periods,” said Mr McCaul.

“It is also imperative to have land contact exclusively carried out by people from the local area.”

The RBP’s construction proved that Australia was a viable market for relatively smaller diameter long distance natural gas transmission pipelines, and it is now rightly looked upon as a catalyst for a new energy market in the country.

And so, 46 years after the completion of the RBP, Queensland continues to lead the way in onshore natural gas development in Australia.

This is thanks to Australia’s first natural gas pioneers, who were led by the explorers who believed the gas resource was in place, and the developers who followed them.

This article was featured in the October 2015 edition of The Australian Pipeliner

If you have news you would like featured in The Australian Pipeliner contact Managing Editor David Convery at dconvery@gs-press.com.au

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