Sydney to Newcastle Pipelines

Earliest considerations for a gas pipeline to Newcastle were reported in 1972 in conjunction with the announcement of the preferred route of the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline. At this time it was proposed to route the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline through the Blue Mountains and lay a pipeline from Riverstone at the foot of the Blue Mountains to Newcastle then south to Wollongong.

These plans were changed when the environmental enquiry, chaired by the head of the New South Wales State Pollution Control Commission Eric Coffey, recommended that the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline should avoid the Blue Mountains and follow the southern route (which it eventually took). Mr Coffey also recommended that the Newcastle pipeline be constructed from a point near Orange from a proposed lateral off the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline rather than from near Sydney.

In late 1973 AGL, contrary to Coffey’s recommendation, advertised a proposed coastal route to Newcastle utilising an 86 mile 22 in. pipeline from Sydney. In November 1974 the pipeline route was still in dispute with the New South Wales government who had yet to issue a licence to AGL. The government took the public stance that it preferred taking gas for Newcastle from the proposed Northern Inland Lateral if the Pipeline Authority went ahead with the project.

The Northern Inland Lateral was a line to Brisbane proposed as part of the pipeline grid. As time marched on the New South Wales government were unable to determine whether the Commonwealth government intended to proceed with the Northern Inland Lateral. This lead to the government announcing in late January 1975 that it had approved, in principle, the granting of a licence to AGL for the coastal route. The granting of the licence would however be subject to the findings of an environmental study by the State Pollution Control Commission. In the meantime AGL had ordered pipe for the project and was preparing to call tenders for construction.

By July 1975 AGL had almost finished survey work on the route and were awaiting notification whether a full environmental enquiry would go ahead after they had submitted an environmental statement to the Minister of Mines Pat Hills on 17 March.

During September 1975 there was a proposal from Caltex to build a products pipeline that would share AGL’s trench from Plumpton to Barnsley. The State Pollution Control Commission then advertised its intent to hold an environmental impact inquiry into the two pipelines starting in December 1975 with findings expected to be announced in January 1976.

The findings recommended by the enquiry threw the construction plans into further disarray by calling for 25 route changes and 18 conditions to be imposed as environmental protection measures. Some of the route changes placed the pipelines outside the approved permit area, requiring the companies to reapply for permits and hear objections.

The then general manager of AGL Mr J Robinson attacked the State Pollution Control Commission’s recommendations and the government’s acceptance of them saying “it is obvious the whole state approach in matters such as this are in urgent need of overhaul.”

It was not until May 1977 that a high powered committee, set up by the recently formed Energy Authority of NSW and including its members as well as representatives from AGL, Caltex and appropriate government bodies, was tasked with finding a new route suitable to the State Pollution Control Commission.

It took until October that year before the NSW Government indicated that a route acceptable to all was close. Minister Hills said in a statement to Parliament “the route of the pipeline is being examined and I hope shortly, that it shall be finally determined, so as to be able to indicate clearly when construction is likely to commence.”

Fast forward to February 1979 where there were further complications with AGL extending the pipeline through to Kooragang Island where industry potential justified extending the pipeline another 22 km (with all the additional requirements this entailed).

Although AGL did not meet its goal of commencing construction by the end of 1979, it called for tenders and in early 1980 awarded a contract for the major part of the pipeline system. The contract, awarded to Spie Capag – Citra Constructions (Citra Spie), consisted of 163 km of 500 mm natural gas pipeline from Plumpton in Sydney and 141 km of 300 mm petroleum pipeline between Plumpton and Killingworth with the two pipelines between Plumpton and Killingworth sharing a common trench. Guy Moreau was Project Manager for the winning tender.

Smaller contracts were awarded for the section of the products pipeline between Silverwater and Plumpton and Killingworth and Wickham and for the natural gas pipeline from Hexham to Walsh Point on Kooragang Island. Ownership of the various pipelines was by AGL, Newcastle Pipeline Company and Hunter Pipeline Company. (See Figure 1).

Construction commenced and in March 1980 Minister Hills said he was confident that natural gas would be in Newcastle early in 1981. He went on to say that he had serious concerns about industrial troubles on the line and hoped that a joint working party would solve the dispute. He said the $120 million project was too important to be delayed through disputation and that it “only required adequate liaison between the parties.”

The Minister’s optimism was shattered by continued industrial disputes. The industrial problems, which started in early 1980 over travelling time and accommodation allowances, resulted in substantial increases being awarded, however the day after the increases were handed down a mass meeting was held and the workforce went home for the day. Rolling strikes, go slows and restricted working hours followed. The contractor was losing money so fast it could not go on and the job was closed down on 4 June 1980. Two other sections of the pipeline yet to be let were put on hold.

It was not until three months later at a mass meeting held on 8 September that the men accepted a recommendation to return to work. Construction resumed on 15 September 1980 with an expectation of having the pipelines welded out by September 1981 and gas into Newcastle five weeks later. Details about the agreement were not revealed but it was believed to be a substantial increase in allowances tied to productivity.

From this point it may have been expected that construction would proceed free of industrial disputes but it was not to be. By June 1981 a continuing plague of industrial trouble had caused the construction to slow to a crawl. The pipeline construction, initially planned to be completed in twelve months, was only 50 per cent complete after 18 months.

Over 60 per cent of time had been lost to industrial disputes with the project achieving only a 35 per cent production rate. AGL was considering a spur line off the main line to Maitland but dropped this proposal because of the trouble. AGL then awarded a 15 km section of the pipeline from Killingworth to Hexham, originally part of the Citra Spie contract, to Eric Newham saying that the contract with Citra Spie allowed for this. The delayed construction contracts for the oil line from Killingworth to Wickham and Silverwater to Plumpton were then awarded to Eglo Engineering Services with completion scheduled for November 1981.

The Newcastle Gas Company lashed out savagely, laying the blame for 15 – 25 per cent increases in gas prices in Newcastle squarely at the feet of the unions. Gas in Newcastle was still being produced from naptha which was tied to the rising price of oil.

By October 1981 things were improving and the industrial problems at last seemed to be over. The agreement for finishing had the pipeline welded out by March 1982 and the rest of the pipeline finished six weeks later.

It was however the beginning of May 1982 before the 10 year saga was almost over. It was an environmental nightmare getting the Sydney-Newcastle pipelines approved followed by a horrendous litany of industrial action during construction. AGL were, however, able to announce that all front end welding was completed at the end of April and the only work left was 10 km and backfill and 30 km of hydro-testing.

The natural gas pipeline for AGL was commissioned on 3 July 3 1982 followed by the product pipeline on 16 July.

The ramifications of this project echoed for many years into the future and made other owners and potential owners very wary about future pipeline construction.

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