GETTING natural gas to Sydney is now taken for granted, but the initial project, completed 40 years ago, had to overcome many obstacles.
Natural gas arrived in Sydney in time for New Year’s celebrations in 1976.
Getting it there meant changing routes and supply fields, dealing with interstate rivalries, negotiating federal political intrigues and outwitting hydralike bureaucracies in several jurisdictions.
Along the way, the longest pipeline of the time in Australia was built and a significant number of firsts was achieved.
It began in 1971 when the then AGL contracted joint venturers CMPS and the Oklahoma-based Williams Brothers to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from Bass Strait to Sydney via the east coast.
But as Grahame Campbell today told the 2016 APGA Annual Convention and Exhibition held in Perth, it was a time of great upheaval where everything, including pipelines, was affected.
The first hurdle came six months into the project when Victorian Premier Sir Henry Bolte, in a bid to advantage his own State, imposed a price on Bass Strait gas at the wellhead that was the same as the delivered price in Victoria.
“Incensed at the move, AGL looked west, found the Cooper Basin in South Australia and negotiated with Santos to supply gas at 16 cents a gigajoule – half of the price of Bass Strait gas,” Mr Campbell said.
“The only problem was getting it to Sydney which meant having to cross the Blue Mountains.”
Meanwhile, in 1972 a new Labor government came into office in Canberra under Gough Whitlam promising that it was time for a big change. The new Minerals and Energy Minister, Rex Connor, set about transforming the sector to conform with his vision for increased government control.
Nevertheless, AGL submitted its licence application, only to be met by NSW Government calls for an environmental inquiry, the first ever such inquiry to be\ held in Australia. The inquiry was subsequently established, but seemed to lack direction and rigour and its report was eventually ignored. The federal government saw an opportunity with the cross-jurisdictional Moomba to Sydney Project and sought to intervene by establishing the Pipeline Authority.
They wanted to nationalise it.
At the time, Australia’s steel pipe manufacturers had limited capacity to make larger diameter pipe, but were protected by a series of import laws. AGL had conducted studies and found they could import larger diameter pipe from Japan at a greatly reduced cost. The decision to go ahead and order it evoked a furious lobbying response from Australian steel-makers who were only slightly appeased by AGL’s decision to order from them all the pipe that could be manufactured in Australia largely for the Newcastle and Wollongong laterals.
But then a new hurdle: Rex Connor blocked AGL’s ability to source foreign funding and domestic lenders were not available. AGL was forced to deal with the Pipeline Authority and that meant a new, 105km longer, route for the pipeline via Young in NSW.
With Connor’s vision for a national grid, Mr Campbell visited authorities in Albury and Wodonga to find new customers, but within 48 hours, Sir Henry Bolte announced new legislation to supply Wodonga with gas from Bass Strait.
Despite all the hurdles, construction finally got under way in 1974. And then a new set of problems emerged: welders were critical of the Australian pipe, preferring that made in Japan; also metal workers in Victoria took advantage of the project to get some pay-back on one of the contractors for a previous project; pipeline coating methods varied with uncertain outcomes; and the pipeline codes hadn’t kept up with new x-ray technology and perfectly good welds were being rejected.
“We were working at the forefront of pipeline technology with many world firsts being achieved,” Mr Campbell said.
“Automatic welding and the highest operating pipe stress levels achieved with new testing techniques were but a few of the challenges.
“The pipeline traversed the whole gamut of land use possibilities – forests, farms, water catchments and semi-urban landscapes, and it intersected other utilities and services, including railways, roads, water pipelines, power lines and sewage systems.
“We needed the wisdom of Solomon, and Harry Butler the renowned environmentalist came to the rescue.”
Restoring the right-of-way provided another challenge, this time to negotiate the conflicting advice provided by the various government agencies involved.
The Moomba to Sydney Pipeline was tested and ready for operations on New Year’s Eve in 1976. While gas was now flowing from South Australia to Sydney, the challenges were still rolling in as many of the issues and contractual disputes that arose continued. These were finally resolved by many court cases including what was, fittingly for such a massive project, Australia’s largest court case up to that time.