The Moomba to Sydney Pipeline: 1971 to 1976

The early driving force behind the 850 mile 34 in. MSP was William Pettingell, General Manager of the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL). In June 1972 he was knighted to become Sir William Pettingell.

He set up a special company within AGL called East Australian Pipeline Corporation Ltd (EAPC), with John Butters as General Manager, to build the pipeline. Williams Brothers, an American firm in joint venture with the Australian firm Crooks, Michell, Peacock & Stewart (Williams Brothers – CMPS) were appointed in 1971 to carry out feasibility and engineering studies on this pipeline. The William Brothers “”CMPS Engineers business co-ordinator was Andrew Lukas. The studies moved to an advanced stage quite quickly and it was expected that AGL would get construction started without undue delay.

However many difficulties had to be first met and overcome by AGL in its attempts to bring natural gas to Sydney. It started with initial prolonged negotiations with ESSO-BHP in an attempt to buy gas from the Victorian Bass Strait fields. In October 1970, Mr Pettingell broke off negotiations with ESSO-BHP because the latter would not offer AGL equivalent terms in respect of gas prices and other conditions to those enjoyed by the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria. Subsequently, Mr Pettingell told the Australian Pipe Line Contractors Association’s December 1970 symposium that AGL was looking to South Australia and Queensland for supplies.

State politics also played a role in the source of gas – the then Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte was unwilling to let “˜his’ state’s gas go to New South Wales (even though the gas fields were in Commonwealth waters), whereas Don Dunstan, Premier of South Australia was somewhat more relaxed, even though at the time the Cooper Basin gas fields did not have sufficient reserves to satisfy South Australia’s demands for power generation and meet AGL’s requirements. A letter of agreement was signed with the South Australian parties in May 1971. The gas producers in South Australia, Santos and Delhi Petroleum, then had the difficulty in proving sufficient reserves. After two extensions of time they were just able to meet the required reserves with the announcement of their success made in October 1972.

Meanwhile in September 1972, it was revealed that AGL had ordered pipe from Japanese suppliers. A storm of protest greeted this decision to place the entire order for the 34 in. diameter pipe with Japanese companies.

AGL’s decision to select 34 in. pipe was controversial, since a detailed economic and transient flow study suggested that 30 in. pipe would be adequate. However, internally, AGL had the view that it could secure pipe from Japan at a better price than that offered by local suppliers and that the local suppliers could not manufacture 34 in. pipe. Hence, if 34 in. was chosen, AGL would benefit from the better imported price. In addition, AGL was of the view that such pipe was not able to be manufactured locally hence its imported pipe would not attract Customs duty. In the event, Australian steel and pipe manufacturers appealed to the Customs Department which ultimately forced AGL to purchase about 20 per cent of the pipe from Australian sources in exchange for relief from duty for the remaining imported pipe.

Next AGL had to overcome strong opposition by environmental groups to the pipeline crossing the Blue Mountains. The shortest route, which was preferred by AGL, was directly over the Blue Mountains towards the Bells Line of Road to the terminal and metering station at Riverstone, near Windsor. The route preferred by the environmentalists swung south through Young, Goulburn and Moss Vale, and entered Sydney through Campbelltown and was approximately 70 miles longer. A third alternative, which did not seem to have much support from any quarter, was 100 miles longer and veered north through the Hunter Valley to Newcastle.

This led to an open environmental inquiry into aspects of the proposed pipeline being set up by the Hon Jack Beale, NSW Minister of Environment Control. Eric Coffey was appointed the enquiry commissioner. Naturalist and environmentalist, Harry Butler was also closely involved in advising the Commission. The proposed closing date for submissions was 22 January 1973 with 30 January proposed as the date to start the inquiry. These dates brought a howl of protest from the environmentalists because of their short notice leading to the NSW government deciding to put the date of the inquiry back to 1 March, allowing the groups more time to organise. As is now known the southern route won the day. AGL still had the next big obstacle to clear.

It came on 15 January 1973, the Commonwealth Minister for Mines and Energy in the Whitlam government, Rex Connor, announced his plan for a National Pipeline Grid, which would include the Moomba to Sydney line. It was proposed that a Commonwealth Pipeline Authority be set up to build this pipeline and this was formalised by the execution of an agreement between the Commonwealth and AGL on 26 March 1973. The Pipeline Authority Bill was passed in May 1973 and the Pipeline Authority took ownership of the work done so far and oversaw all commercial and contractual matters associated with design and construction of the pipeline.

However Sir William Pettingell continued to assert that AGL regarded the Pipeline Authority Act as invalid on constitutional grounds and was considering taking it to the High Court for determination. Mr Connor said that any legal challenge regarding the validity of the Pipeline Authority Act could seriously delay construction. No legal challenge ensued and The Pipeline Authority, set up under the Act, gradually took over the project with Jim Donald (not to be confused with Jim McDonald who came to MSP much later) as the chief executive.

Despite the setbacks, planning and progress towards construction of the pipeline moved ahead at an ever accelerating pace. Contractors busily prepared bids for section one, the 356 mile long section from the Moomba gas fields in South Australia to the Barrier Highway near Wilcannia in Western NSW.

It was 28 November 1973 when Saipem Australia was awarded the construction contract for section one. It was mainly desert country that Saipem knew so well, having laid two major natural gas pipelines through similar country in South Australia and West Australia. Saipem’s head office was located in Sydney. The Managing Director of Saipem at the time was Lucio Lussu, Sergio Maffezzini was Operations Manager and Don Hamlyn had been appointed Manager General Services.

Australian Pipeline Construction, known throughout the pipeline industry simply as APC, were the successful tenderers for section two. The announcement of APC’s success was made 16 January 1974 by Rex Connor. Section two extended from the Barrier Highway to Gunning, a distance of 352 miles.

APC had built a number of Australia’s main oil and gas pipelines, mainly in Victoria, following the discovery of oil and gas in Bass Strait. APC, originally a joint venture between Carter Johnson and Woodhall, was now wholly owned by Woodhall. Carter Johnson had sold his holding to Woodhall but continued with the company as Managing Director.

Severe flooding over northwest NSW hampered the movement of supplies and equipment into the area and delayed the start of construction. Other factors working against the scheduled start was protracted delivery of new equipment (with delivery on four wheel drive vehicles and other equipment of up to six months) and the crude oil embargo which had hampered the shipping of equipment from overseas

Double jointing contracts were awarded to Joyce-APC (a joint venture between Joyce Weston of Andover, New York and APC) and Sedco-Thiess. Joyce-APC won the South Australian work and set up yards at Mingary and Leigh Creek. Sedco-Thiess won the NSW work and yards were progressively set up at Cobar, Euabalong West and Young (Maimaru). Project Manager for Joyce-APC was Bill Wilhite. Double jointing by the Sedco-Thiess joint venture started at Cobar. CRC Crose, through Keith Fitzgerald’s company Pacific Pipeline Supply, supplied one of the world’s biggest double jointing racks for Cobar capable of handling pipe up to 48 in. diameter. Project Manager for Sedco-Thiess was Joe Chapman, another well known Texan pipeliner.

BIX-ETRS won the radiography contract for all three sections of the pipeline as well as the double jointing. BIX-ETRS had their radiography technicians working hard in order to keep up with production. Alan Armstrong, was the Field Superintendent for BIX-ETRS.

Saipem set up their camp approximately 70 miles south of Cobar and APC moved most of their heavy equipment to the Mt. Hope area in NSW. Saipem were given an extra 96 miles of pipeline to lay over and above their original contract length of 360 miles. This extra work was under a subcontract arrangement with APC. The arrangement was made because floods prevented Saipem starting work on their own spread.

APC were also awarded section three which was 72 miles in length from mile post 709 to mile post 781. Section four from mile post 781 to mile post 807 was awarded to Newham-Techint. All this work was for The Pipeline Authority. From mile post 807 to mile post 839 the pipeline was under the control of the AGL and this section was also awarded to Newham-Techint.

The construction of the Moomba – Sydney gas pipeline proceeded despite floods, temperatures that reached and exceeded 50°C, dust, industrial disputes, more floods, more industrial disputes, welding problems and the occasional bushfire. The actual construction of the pipeline is a story in itself which we shall cover in a future edition.

The last weld was made late 1976. Pipeline Construction magazine recorded the event saying “Joe Aboujabber a welder on the Moomba-Sydney pipeline made the last mainline weld near Bowral last Sunday 22nd August. This completes the last of over 50,000 field welds that join the 1,300 km pipeline”. Gas eventually reached Sydney on 23 December 1976.

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