End of an era: the Moonie to Brisbane pipeline shuts down

It is interesting to look at the history of the Australian pipeline industry and when we talk about “the history” we refer to the building of the major oil and gas pipeline network that is now in place and the colourful characters involved who made pipelining such an interesting and exciting industry.

We have no argument with those who may say the history of pipelining in Australia started with the building of the famous Kalgoorlie water pipeline by C.Y. O’Connor at the beginning of the last century (1903).

But for the purpose of this exercise we intend to start with the introduction of the American pipeline construction techniques (which amounted to a form of “fast-track” production engineering carried out in the field), in the early 1960s, with the building of the Moonie Oil Pipeline.

The Moonie Oil Pipeline by its very description was built to take oil from the Moonie oil field to Brisbane. It was the first major oil or gas pipeline built in Australia and holds Queensland pipeline licence number 1.

Work on the pipeline started June 1963 and pipelaying was completed October of the same year.

However it was April 1964 before the pipeline was officially opened with oil flowing by May 1964.

The company responsible for building the pipeline was Union Oil Development Corporation and their resident manager in Australia was Doyle T Graves.

Union Oil formed a new company called the Moonie Oil Pipeline Co Pty Ltd.

Union Oil let the contract for construction of the pipeline to Bechtel Pacific Corporation and Bechtel’s field superintendent was an American named Ralph Bucher.

Several other names of note appear when studying the history of this pipeline, one being Ken de Shan from Oklahoma, the late husband of Joan de Shan – a very well known figure in the contemporary pipeline scene.

Ken first met Joan on this pipeline, when Joan was working as secretary for the Right of Way acquisition.

Ken died in 1990, and Joan continued to own and operate East Coast Pipeline and Welding until recently.

Another name that appears is D.B. Alexander who continued to work throughout the pipeline industry until the 1970s.

He was pictured in the November edition of Pipeline Construction (now PPO) when project manager for North West Pipelines on the Townsville Hot Oil Pipeline, and was popularly known throughout the industry as DB.

Unfortunately his death was recorded in the August 1974 edition of Pipeline Construction when he was killed a car accident just outside Parkes in central NSW.

Probably the most significant name to feature in later years on the Australian scene, and in fact, a founding member of the Australian Pipeline Contractors Association (forerunner to APIA), was Ron Nicholas, more usually known as “The Roo,” who went on to found his own pipeline construction company – Ron became, to use a well worn phrase “a legend in his own lifetime,” and will appear again in later articles.

He was an Australian who had gradually migrated to Canada after the Second World War, and there learnt the skills of “downhill” pipe welding, becoming a skilled “bead hand” and tie-in welder.

When the news of the Moonie pipeline filtered through the industry, he packed up his Fargo 4×4 welding truck and shipped it back to Australia.

He was one of the very few skilled Australians to be hired by Bechtel, who had brought in their own complete crew of welders, operators and skilled labourers.

Bechtel put him to work as utility welder (which meant being responsible for all welding maintenance required to keep the construction equipment running).

Following the completion of the Moonie pipeline, he purchased one of the Bechtel Cleveland V140 trenchers he had spent so many hours working on, and formed Red Ru Pipeline Construction Co., but that, as they say, is another story!

Some of the other men on the spread were Project Chief Inspector J. E. Richardson of Los Angeles, chief welding technician Ralph Jaeck, welder Tom May of Beaumont Texas and Chester Stokes of Millmerran. NDT technicians were Gerald MacKnight, Tom Clayton and Guy Thwaites.

Ray Miller a 22-year plant oiler from Chinchilla, learnt how to operate the Cleveland Trencher, being allowed to drive it by the “expat” operator during smoko and lunch breaks.

He stayed in the industry, operating the same machine, until the mid 1970s.

The oil pipeline, 190 miles in length with a 10 inch diameter, was estimated at the time to cost £4,500,000.

In one of the Moonie Oil Pipeline Company’s original pipeline documents the company says “The 190 miles of pipeline crossed various types of terrain. Commencing at the now famous Moonie Oil field, it travelled through brigalow, scrub, and gum timbered lands.

“It was quite common for the construction crews whilst working in this area to encounter the dingo, a wild Australian dog and a cunning killer that takes a heavy toll of livestock each year. The crews also had to beware of the deadly poisonous snakes that abound here, the worst being the death adder, whose bite proves fatal within a few minutes.”

The first large river crossing encountered was the Condamine River at M.P. (mile post) 59, at M.P. 102 the pipeline reached its highest point in elevation in its run to the sea, the Great Dividing Range.

According to a Courier Mail press report dated June 30 1963, “Bechtel Pacific Corporation yesterday began laying the 190 mile long pipeline which will carry millions of pounds worth of “black Gold” from Moonie Oil Field to Brisbane.

“The first 600 ft section of the £4,500,000 pipeline was lowered carefully into its trench in a cleared bush land setting at 10.40 am. It marked a major milestone in realisation of Australia’s first commercial oilfield – and in Queensland’s development.

“By 4.30 pm more than a mile of pipeline had been laid, another mile was welded ready for laying and a further seven miles of the route were trenched.

“No ceremony – no visits by V.I.Ps marked Australia’s first historic oil pipe, but there was an atmosphere of drama and excitement as the equipment moved into action at daylight.”

This pipeline project was the first project in Australia that used the modern day “mass production” construction techniques with the attendant machinery that goes with this type of construction.

This attracted huge interest and one paper reported that scores of cars lined each side of the Warwick Road and hundreds of people watched as the pipeline was laid each side and an 80 ft section was inserted in the bore under the road.

Such was the interest that one pipeliner was reported as saying that he did not mind them looking but sometimes they get in the way. “We’d like them to stand well back and give us plenty of elbow room.”

Pipe was supplied from Japan. Clear and grade was subcontracted to McDonald Constructions, Queensland.

The pipe haulage was sub-contracted to two Queensland transport firms, JN Nicholson, and Western Transport.

Amongst the drivers who hauled pipe on to the spread for the latter company was a young owner-operator, Neil Mansell, who has since, with his company Neil Mansell Transport, hauled a lot more pipe onto many of the major pipelines throughout Australia.

Following close behind the welders were industrial x-ray teams using a mobile dark room and processing unit who checked the pipe joints for possible flaws.

Following the x-ray team came the pipe lowering-in crew, who coated the long strings of welded pipe with a plastic tape, using self-propelled clean, prime and tape machines.

The pipe was lifted clear of the ground by sideboom tractors carrying rollers which travelled underneath the pipe as the sidebooms moved forward.

The clean prime and tape machines travelled along the pipe adjacent to the sidebooms, a cloud of dust and rust concealing a mass of rotating wire brushes and scraper knives, and whirling arms which wrapped the adhesive insulation tape around the pipe just coated with a priming paint.

The pipe was then gently and carefully laid into the predug pipe trench all in a single operation.

Bechtel brought all of their key construction people out from the States and Australians were introduced to snuff, baccy chewing (and spitting) Texans, Red Wing boots, pipeline “spreads”, pigs and a whole lot more of specialised pipeline equipment and pipeline jargon.

The Australians took to the work with gusto and were evidently held in high regard by the ex pats, although in the early days of the project they were looked upon purely as “shovel hands and water carriers!”

This changed, as the following comments illustrate, and towards the end of the project Australians workers had found their way into several operating and supervisory positions.

A Courier Mail newspaper report at the time reported Doyle T Graves as saying that Australian workers on the job were doing an excellent job.

“The Australians have impressed the Americans and Canadians on the project with their adaptability to jobs which are new to them.”

The Americans and Canadians confirmed Mr Grave’s comments, “Pipeline foreman Fred Chapman of Canada said we’ve been pleasantly surprised just how fast the Australians have picked up the job. They’re most adaptable and efficient.”

Veteran chief welding technician Ralph Jaeck said, “The Australians are as good as the imports. In about six months I think they will take over this sort of work completely.

The Australians are in turn full of praise for their American bosses.

“The Yanks are good blokes to work for,” said welding hand Chester Stokes of Millmerran. “There’s plenty of money in this and the work is fairly easy. Some of the Australians are making up to £50 a week including overtime.”

Co-operation from the farmers whose land has been crossed could not have been better Mr Jaeck said, “They’re better here than back home “Some of them there have been known to bar the way armed with a loaded shotgun. Here they’re more likely to be armed with a cup of tea.”

Talking about the terrain they crossed, “We’ve been over worse than that,” assistant supervisor D. B. Alexander said.

In late August 1963 the pipelaying crews commenced laying the Moonie pipeline down the Toowoomba Range.

The pipeline crossed the main Toowoomba – Warwick road eight miles from the Toowoomba post office.

The Range descent began a few hundred yards from the Preston turn off from the Hodgson Vale Road.

Foreman of the pipelaying gang Paul Killion of Tulsa Oklahoma was reported at the time as saying that he anticipated no trouble in making the descent of the Toowoomba Range.

On 4 October 1963 the laying of the Moonie Oil Pipeline was completed, 59 days ahead of schedule. Only the tie-ins linking the pipeline sections at road and rail crossings over the last few miles to the Lytton terminal remained to be completed.

Union Oil Corporation which let the pipeline contract to Bechtel hailed the project as the fastest engineering feat in Australia’s history. However although pipelaying was completed in record time it was to be April 1964 before the pipeline was officially opened.

The Moonie Oil Pipeline started a new industry in Australia which was to see the construction of the world’s first Iron Ore Slurry line (the Savage River Pipeline – also constructed by Bechtel Pacific), built in Tasmania in 1967.

By 1969 the pipeline industry in Australia was well on the way with the setting up of a school to train Australian pipewelders – under the auspices of the newly formed APCA (Australian Pipeline Contractors Association), and the development of an offshore oil and gas industry in the Bass Strait with associated onshore pipelines in Victoria.

Pipeline construction continued in Queensland with the building of the Roma to Brisbane gas pipeline and the major gas pipeline from Moomba to Adelaide was also built at this time.

Very significantly, senior executives mainly of the construction companies operating at that time, including Dick Plake and Ken Piesse of Ingrams and latterly J. Ray McDermott, Carter Johnson of Australian Pipelines Construction, Lucio Lussu of Snam Progetti (now Saipem) and Ron Nicholas of Red Ru Pipelines came together and decided it was high time to form an industry association.

They were ably and generously supported by the few specialist suppliers of those days – and the whole association has, rather like Topsy, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, “jus’ growed!” to the organisation we have today.

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