Five Decades of Services: The Story of the Roma to Brisbane Pipeline.

Five Decades of Services: The Story of the Roma to Brisbane Pipeline.

There have been many contributors to Queensland becoming Australia’s leading gas state, but the trailblazer was RBP. Commissioned in 1969, the pipeline has now been delivering natural gas to homes and industry in the state’s southeast for half a century.

 

The 440 km Roma Brisbane Pipeline (RBP), built with true pioneering spirit, was a construction triumph putting Queensland firmly at the forefront of the Australian gas industry. Thanks to the pipeline, Brisbane was the first Australian capital city to have a supply of natural gas piped in for commercial and domestic use. Additionally, the lessons learnt during the pipeline’s construction by Queensland-based civil engineering and construction company Thiess Bros, as well as subsequent capacity increases, modifications, additions, extensions and ongoing maintenance, have been credited with helping make Australia’s gas industry a world leader. APA Group owns and manages RBP and celebrated the half century milestone in May this year in Brisbane and Toowoomba by hosting a gathering of people who contributed to the development and ongoing operations of the pipeline.

Opened in March 1969 by then-Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the $11 million (approximately $100 million today) RBP connected to a valve site at Wallumbilla, 30 km east of Roma. This was the first major gas development in Australia after natural gas was discovered in the city by chance nearly 120 years ago.

RBP and subsequent pipelines transporting gas to other capital cities, such as Melbourne and Sydney, led to the total transformation of Australia’s energy supply. At the start of the 1960s, the energy mix was almost totally dependent on imported oil and gas made from black and brown coal.

Sixty years after natural gas unexpectedly bubbled from an exploratory water bore at Roma in 1900, natural gas was powering the city and surrounding regions. Soon after, the search for more lucrative markets, as well as more gas, ramped up.

 

Trailblazing An Industry.

The catalyst for modern Australia’s massive gas pipeline infrastructure, which started with RBP, was the Moonie Oil Pipeline, built in the early 1960s to take oil to Brisbane. As the first major oil pipeline built in Australia, it introduced US pipeline construction techniques, which amounted to a form of fast-track production engineering carried out in the field and led to the involvement of international expertise in the construction of RBP.

In addition to significant design and construction expertise, the US influence was also in operations, including bringing specialist welders to Australia. When the pipeline came online in 1969, it took natural gas from 25 wells in the Roma fields to a new US-backed fertiliser manufacturing complex, purpose-built at Gibson Island on the Brisbane River, which had earlier signed a 15-year contract to take 70 per cent of the piped gas.

“The fact that RBP is still playing an integral part in the distribution of natural gas along Australia’s east coast is a testimony to the dedication and resourcefulness of those early pipeline engineers and workers.”

A domestic consumer connection, taking the other 30 per cent, followed immediately. Today, 60 per cent of the gas is used domestically, while the remaining 40 per cent goes to industry. Outgoing APA Group CEO and Managing Director Mick McCormack says the 50-year anniversary of the pipeline was a “proud moment” for the company and an illustration of just what Australian foresight, engineering and ingenuity was capable of.

“The fact that RBP is still playing an integral part in the distribution of natural gas along Australia’s east coast is a testimony to the dedication and resourcefulness of those early pipeline engineers and workers,” he says.

“Following RBP, many more pipelines were developed, connected and are now part of APA’s interconnected pipeline grid, the East Coast Grid.”

Mr McCormack says RBP taught a lot of the industry about pipelining, with many significant industry figures recalling how much they learnt from working on the pipeline early in their careers. “We are also lucky to have many people still with APA that have over 20 years’ service to the pipeline,” he says.

The route of the pipeline went through a wide variety of terrain, including the black soil plains of the Darling Downs, the stepp descent of the Great Dividing Range near Toowoomba, and developed areas in metropolitan Brisbane.

The average daily welding production, using 14 welders, connected more than 300 joint lengths of pipeline with an average length of 14.3 m. The original design of the pipeline called for it to be buried to a depth of 750 mm, while road and river crossings were deeper.

“Gas continues to be an essential part of our energy mix so RBP will definitely continue its crucial role in transporting gas to our communities for years to come,” says Mr McCormack.

 

Pioneering Spirit.

Unparalleled determination, combined with sheer hard work and ingenuity, drove those behind the 50-year-old RBP, the first in Australia to connect a capital city to remote gas fields. And no-one personified the pioneering spirit more than Bruce McCaul, a Field Manager in Roma for Associated Group during the pipeline’s construction.

Speaking previously to The Australian Pipeliner, Mr McCaul said when construction started, few envisaged the industry would grow from their work.

“We were indeed pioneering a new industry,” he said, adding that he realised this more than ever when he looked at the map of Australia years later, which showed the number of pipelines built after RBP was connected. Indeed, gas field development and pipeline construction was so new to Australia that Mr McCaul revealed he had to use everyday supermarket items to assist with the works.

“There were few off-the-shelf equipment items available, and shipping items from the US were long,” he said. “For example, to make mist extractors to supply gas to instruments, I cornered the market in Roma for old style wire mesh pot scrubbers to fill sections of pipe as a condensate separator. I bought Woolworths and two local corner stores out of stock!” As for the actual construction of the pipeline, he recalled how help had been sought from overseas.

“We did not have the experience in long distance high-pressure transmission pipelines even though we had constructed about 30 km of small diameter lines in and around Roma,” said Mr McCaul.

“This is why we partnered with Southern Union Gas (SUG) from the US for the project. Based in Dallas, SUG entered into the pipeline project on a joint venture basis and was involved in practically every phase of the business.”

From exploration and production through to gathering, transporting, distributing and selling at wholesale and retail levels, SUG played a role in the birth of the gas industry in Australia. “SUG sent us a number of specialists to supervise construction and carry out the design, planning, materials specifications, supervision and welding training,” said Mr McCaul.

“Unlike some pipelines that came later, there was not a large number of overseas people in addition to the people from SUG, except for some specialist welders, involved in the construction.

“The rest of the workforce were locals who already had experience in large civil and mining operations, and were given additional training on the job.”

RBP’s welding team included Fred Verna and Bob Papp, originally from Italy and Hungary, respectively, who set a record for the number of pipeline welds during construction. Both experienced welders in the Australian pipeline industry, they recalled their experiences on RBP in an interview published in The Pipeliner in 2005.

Reminiscing about his time working on the project, Mr Papp said, “What a camp that was, we had to wash our own plates and knives and forks!”

Mr Verna said workers were given a knife, fork and plates and told, “When you are finished, wash them up and take them back to your room because they are yours and don’t lost them!” They went on to say that although the Americans and Canadians had the top jobs, they believed they were better welders.

“We were not experienced pipeline welders but we were very good welders,” said Mr Verna. During pipeline construction, their expertise soon developed, with the daily welding production in excess of 300 joints using just 14 welders. A total of 42,000 welds were made and tested visually and with ultrasonic and radiographic equipment during the year-long construction.

The welding duo remained part of the construction team until its completion in 1069. Based in Roma from 1968 to 1971, Mr McCaul went on to become the Area Manager for APA while seismic, drilling and gathering system construction operations continued.

 

References:

Lovering, N., Jenkins, C. and Convery, D. (2019). The Australian Pipeliner. Melbourne: Annie Ferguson & GREAT SOUTHERN PRESS, pp.36-37.

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