An executive pipeliner

Laydown site at APA Group's Eastern Goldfields Gas Pipeline in Western Australia, which is due to be completed by the end of 2015.

Laydown site at APA Group's Eastern Goldfields Gas Pipeline in Western Australia, which is due to be completed by the end of 2015.

APA Group is Australia’s largest natural gas infrastructure business, and has made some significant contributions to the industry over the years. Gas Today caught up with Rob Wheals, APA Group Executive - Transmission to discuss his career in the pipeline industry, the major projects on the horizon for the company and his tips for young people entering the industry.

BIGGEST OR BEST CAREER BREAK IN THE PIPELINE INDUSTRY?
Best career break in the pipeline industry was getting into the pipeline industry! This was more by luck than design though, much of my career had been in the telecommunications industry but the time had come to look for a change.

I’d started down the path of exploring a number of potential new industries where my experience could be relevant, including the energy industry, when a recruiter called about an opportunity at APA Group. He described APA as a “company that is going to go places”. The rest is history.

YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
My leadership style shows through in the approach that I take to business improvement opportunities. This process often kicks off with me starting to mull over a change that could be implemented, or a direction I think the business needs to take.

Before taking things any further, I like to road test my ideas with my team and other work colleagues, not only to ensure the ideas are properly ‘pressure tested’, but to get their buy-in for a successful implementation.I believe successful implementation of any strategy or initiative requires empowerment of people to do what we ask of them.

And to do this successfully requires threethings: first, the ‘head’ needs to understandwhy we need to go down a particular path, and then the ‘heart’ needs to buy-in emotionally and get on board. It’s only if we get these first two elements right that we’ve got a fighting chance of the ‘hands’ owning and successfully implementing the initiative.

MOST MEMORABLE EXECUTIVE EXPERIENCE?
There have been several memorable experiences throughout my career, but perhaps the most significant thus far was when APA successfully acquired Epic Energy at the end of 2012.

The addition of the South West Queensland Pipeline to the APA portfolio enabled us to fulfil our vision of delivering seamless services to customers across the east coast grid. Just as importantly, I
was truly pleased with the way in which the acquired business was successfully integrated into APA.

This required a great collaborative effort from three groups of people – the APA team, newly on-board employees from the acquired business, and those that were to stay with the Moomba Adelaide Pipeline system which APA was required to separate off and sell. This all needed to be completed within a short period of three months, and really demonstrated what can be achieved hrough people working together in a positive manner.

It was a truly proud moment to be part of the pipeline industry!

MOST MEMORABLE PIPELINE EXPERIENCE?
My first trip out to see a pipeline being was a fantastic learning experience.

APA was constructing the Bonaparte Gas Pipeline in the Northern Territory in 2008 and I was fortunate enough get out to see trenching, stringing, and laying of the pipeline.

This came a few weeks before I officially joined APA and meant that by the time I had my feet under the desk I felt a little more up to speed.

BEST WAY TO IMPROVE PRODUCTIVITY?
Ask the team at the coal face: “How could we do things better, is there a better way?”

It’s almost always the people who are doing the work that are best placed to know.

BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING THE PIPELINE INDUSTRY?
One of the major challenges faced by the industry is confidence around the availability and price of gas, particularly with the start of the three major LNG projects on the east coast.

We share the Australian Pipelines and Gas Association’s (APGA) position that the solution to reduce the likelihood of peak day gas scarcity in the short term, and associated increases in domestic gas prices, is to encourage increased gas supply.

MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE OR PROBLEM OVERCOME?
Establishing APA’s east coast grid has been an incredibly complex multi-year project.

We have moved from thinking of APA’s 7,500 km east coast grid not as a collection of connected point to point pipelines, but as a connected grid. This is a major change, not only from an operational perspective, but importantly from in the way we provide transportation services.

We started on this journey back in 2010 and successfully rolled out a suite of systems we call ‘APA Grid’, that allows us to productise, manage and invoice services across multiple pipelines in a way that is seamless to our customers.

But that is only part of the journey. The market that we operate in is constantly changing and customers are requiring more flexibility and optionality, with new services that allow multi-receipt and delivery points,
integrated storage, as well as shorter term services that allow customers to manage supply issues or capture opportunities.

So our next challenge is to continue to evolve and respond to our customers’ needs in a changing market.

ADVICE FOR NEW PEOPLE COMING INTO THE INDUSTRY?
It’s an exciting industry to be part of and a great time to be in the pipeline industry.

It’s a supportive industry with really great people who are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic to help.

So get on board, ask lots of questions, and learn as much as you can as quickly as you can. and don’t be afraid to bring your different perspective.

WHAT DOES THE NEXT PERIOD HOLD FOR APA GROUP?
APA is completing a new pipeline that will transport gas to mining operations in the eastern Goldfields region in Western Australia. Work on the 293 km Eastern Goldfields Pipeline is on track to deliver first gas by January 2016.

APA also has a team working hard to put our best foot forward in the Northern Territory government’s selection process for the construction, operation and ownership of the North East Gas Interconnector – a proposed connection of The gas infrastructure in the Territory with eastern Australia. We expect this process to wrap up in late calendar-year 2015.

At the same time we continue to advance our own feasibility study into the possible connection, which we announced in February last year.

And in the south, we are working on the further expansion of the Victoria–New South Wales Interconnect, following the recent signing of a new multi-service gas transportation agreement. The project will require looping on both the Moomba Sydney Pipeline and the Victorian Transmission System and will add a Further 30 TJ/day capacity to the Interconnect.

WHAT DOES APA’S PURCHASE OF THE QCLING PIPELINE MEAN FOR THE COMPANY IN TERMS OF THE LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL LNG MARKET?
The acquisition of what we now call the Wallumbilla Gladstone Pipeline increases our exposure to the opportunities provided by the nascent export-LNG industry in Gladstone [APA acquired the pipeline in June 2015].

For the first time, we have capacity to deliver gas to Gladstone through a pipeline that’s connected to our existing network of infrastructure in eastern Australia. With three Gladstone projects coming on stream and set to consume large amounts of gas for many years, this is a really significant opportunity and a long-term investment.

From our perspective, it’s tremendously important that the acquisition is underpinned by a contract with BG Group for an initial term of 20 years (and potentially up to 40 years).

APA is not in the business of buying or selling gas – we transport it for ouR customers. In relation to the Wallumbilla Gladstone Pipeline, the shippers have entered into a take-or-pay contract which means APA has complete visibility over the return the pipeline will deliver, no matter how the QCLNG project itself performs.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER PLANS TO INCREASE CAPACITY ON APA’S PIPELINES?
Absolutely. This has been an area of focus for APA for some time now. We have recently completed capacity expansions at Wallumbilla and the Moomba-end of the South West Queensland Pipeline, on the Goldfields Gas Pipeline and on the Victorian Northern Interconnect and the South West Pipeline in Victoria

And, as I’ve already mentioned, pre-construction works are already underway for the next stage of looping to increase capacity on the Victoria – New South Wales Interconnect.

We’re focused on working with our customers to find new, innovative ways to address their gas requirements. This includes identifying opportunities to expand capacity as the requirements of our
customers evolve. It also includes capacity trading, in-pipe trades and short-term flexible services

“Get on board, ask lots of questions, and learn as much as you can as quickly as you can.” - Rob Wheals, APA Group Executive - Transmission

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