Mark Cooper: a “˜different’ kind of day job

Mark Cooper had his first taste of the pipeline industry while working in a business development role in the Sydney office of utility company Consolidated Natural Gas. Although his background had been in electricity transmission and distribution, Mr Cooper found himself working on various power projects around the Asia Pacific region, a number of them involving developments which combined pipelines, power plants and power transmission. He soon moved onto working on “˜pure’ pipeline projects, receiving a crash course on the industry after Consolidated Natural Gas acquired 30 per cent of Tenneco Gas’ assets in 1996. El Paso Energy, Allgas Energy, AMP Investments, Axiom Funds Management and Hastings Funds Management also bought interests in Tenneco’s assets, forming Epic Energy.

Providing the right tools

When Mr Cooper was appointed Manager of Business Development for Dampier Bunbury Pipeline (DBP) – formerly part of Epic Energy – he was met with the challenge of creating teams of pipeline experts to work on projects which were “quite different to their day job”.

Mr Cooper had to harness the skills of experienced engineers and operations staff whose focus was usually on efficiently running a pipeline, and direct their expertise toward studying other assets for potential acquisition and producing studies for future pipelines. “And all of this was being directed by a business developer/electrical engineer who had never built or operated a pipeline before,” says Mr Cooper.

This initial role within DBP reinforced in Mr Cooper the importance of providing people with the right tools and support to allow them to deliver their expertise to the project. He says that DBP aims to provide this by maintaining a strong focus on employee training and development. Employees receive training from specialist training organisations and equipment manufacturers as well as learning on the job. In addition, each employee is annually required to establish a personal training and development plan with their manager, the completion of which is a measure of both the employee and the manager’s performance.

Understanding the “˜tyranny of distance’

DBP owns, operates and maintains the Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline (DBNGP), a 1,596 km pipeline which runs from the Burrup Peninsula near Dampier, to Bunbury in the southwest of Western Australia.

Mr Cooper says that one of DBP’s greatest challenges is supplying and supporting pipeline workers, enabling them to do their work safely in the many remote locations along the DBNGP’s length.

“Sitting in an office in Perth makes it too easy to forget what is involved in running the pipeline,” he says. “So I make sure that all of my office staff, including myself, travel out to a remote site at least once a year to spend some time with work crews.”

Mr Cooper says that DBP is continually seeking and acting upon feedback from remote site workers to refine the systems and processes they have in place to counter the “tyranny of distance”.

The numerous expansions that the DBNGP has undergone over the years have also provided DBP with the opportunity to improve its operations. After each stage of expansion, the company reviews the skill sets required to operate the pipeline, reassessing both the number and type of people they will need to accommodate the additional infrastructure. The work group structure is also reviewed to ensure that the new asset mix is optimally supported.

“As an organisation we are still evolving, but I believe that we are constantly improving by integrating lessons learnt from our actual experiences,” says Mr Cooper.

A continued focus on safety

One of Mr Cooper’s most exciting experiences within the pipeline industry was during his work on the proposed Darwin to Moomba Pipeline, where he was responsible for negotiations between various people – gas and equipment suppliers, customers, contractors, governments and government agencies, Native Title groups, existing pipeline owners, operators and financiers.

“Developing this project from concept right through to almost a bankable feasibility study gave me wonderful experience in all pre-construction aspects of a pipeline project,” he says.

In addition to everything he learnt about pipelines during his involvement with the project, Mr Cooper had the opportunity to work with “some very good people” and to meet “some interesting characters”. However, the project also exposed him to the harsher realities of working in the pipeline industry when five of his colleagues were lost in a helicopter crash in Arnhem Land.

When he first joined the pipeline industry, there was a strong focus on safety and he is impressed that this focus has been maintained and even improved in the twelve years since.

“Part of this improvement has to be attributed to the contribution of both the industry and technical and safety regulators in developing and maintaining standards,” Mr Cooper says.

Health and safety is one of the key issues which Mr Cooper hopes to see addressed during his time as an APIA Board Member and warns that even though the pipeline industry currently has an excellent record, it is important not to become complacent.

“While lost time injuries are down, there are still too many recordable injuries, so we need to keep improving our game.”

Pushing the message

During his time as an APIA Board Member, Mr Cooper wants governments to recognise the critical role that gas plays in the Australian economy.

“There is a big risk that governments could disadvantage gas and hinder our national drive to lower carbon emissions by supporting renewable and coal with direct subsidies, while letting gas rely on its obvious advantages,” he says.

“As an industry, we need to push the message that gas can’t win by default – financiers will not invest money to develop new gas projects if they think our projects are competing with government subsidies.”

Mr Cooper says gas is the only currently viable fuel for power generation to complement renewables “when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing”. He states that driving investment away from gas will defeat the Australian Government’s own policy objectives and leave renewable without the back-up required.

Great steps forward

Over the past twelve months, one of the pipeline sector’s major achievements has been the establishment of the Energy Pipelines Co-operative Research Centre, which Mr Cooper says will “provide an excellent platform for research for the future, and expand on the work of the Research and Standards Committee.”

APIA’s work on the Pipeline Engineer Competencies to establish a training framework for industry staff has been another great step forward for the industry.

“It is very useful to have a framework which has been designed to meet the specific requirements of our specialised industry,” says Mr Cooper.

He also points out that the framework is versatile as – despite its title – most of the competencies detailed are equally applicable to technical staff.

More broadly, the pipelines sector has seen an expansion of the industry into a greater involvement with water and coal seam gas pipelines, which Mr Cooper says will bring new technological and commercial challenges.

Advances in welding (both in materials and methods), condition monitoring and remote data acquisition have also contributed significantly to improving maintenance and integrity practices.

“Technology is advancing all the time and the pipeline industry has always been ready to embrace technology to advance the safety and integrity of our pipelines.”

Promoting the industry

Mr Cooper says that the pipeline industry has an ageing, but very experienced workforce, so APIA’s training initiatives such as the Pipelines Engineers Competencies and the Young Pipeliners Forum are vital for providing a platform to develop new talent. However, he says that it is also important to ensure staff retention policies are robust as the pipeline industry faces competition from the deeper-pocketed upstream oil and gas companies.

“We need to promote the industry and the opportunities it offers for variety of work, training and development, the collegiate atmosphere which I have enjoyed, and the stability of the industry to retain the skilled people we have and are developing.”

Send this to a friend