Resources boom or bust?

While the Australian economy stays strong due to continuous growth in the mining sector, the pressures on our road infrastructure grow exponentially.

Most of the Australian population think of the mining industry as simply digging a large hole somewhere well away from the metropolitan area, and the mineral being produced getting transported by rail to a waiting ship to head off overseas. Unfortunately for the Australian road infrastructure, this is not quite the case. Mines are massive pieces of infrastructure in themselves, and they require millions of tonnes of equipment and materials to be brought into these remote areas in order to extract minerals, which make the money.

The scale of the freight movements required just to set up a resources operation, plus the materials needed to be brought in by road when it is in operation, is hard to comprehend for the average member of the public. This is the issue for those who are responsible for the infrastructure being used to access these mines. A massive tide of equipment and materials is already congesting roads between Perth and the Pilbara. These kinds of enormous movements of equipment and freight are coming to the roads of Queensland as the number of mines in the Sunshine State is set to skyrocket.

Speaking at the recent NatRoad conference, Warwick Williams, who is the Heavy Vehicle Road Operations Project Officer for the Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) in Queensland, gave delegates an idea about the scale of the task facing the Queensland road infrastructure in the coming years. Some of the figures being quoted are hard to comprehend and maybe even harder to deal with, especially with the budget constraints being brought in by the new LNP government in Queensland.

Williams's role in the Queensland TMR is to oversee heavy vehicle access to the Queensland state road network. His job has been complicated further, recently, by the massive flooding experienced by the whole of Queensland in 2011. The worst floods in years cut many supply chains and caused a great deal of disruption to the road transport industry. At the same time, major routes across the state were severely damaged and are now in need of significant repair work.

“We had a sea of water and now we have a wave of roadworks across the state,” says Williams. “In the TMR we have a $6 billion roadwork program to fix the problem. Normally, in the Rockhampton area we spend around $170 million on road repairs and upgrades, in the next couple of years we will be spending close to $1 billion.”

These costs are just those required to bring the road network back to the condition it was in before the floods hit in 2011, triggering the massive federal funding required to get the job done. However, Queensland is having to prepare for another wave, that of resources industry equipment and materials travelling from the coast to the new mining developments all over the state.

Queensland is preparing for a massive increase in the amount of activity around extracting liquefied natural gas (LNG). The equipment needed at the site of the extraction requires a number of modular constructions, which have to be shifted from the point of manufacture to the mine site. TMR estimate this will cause an extra 150,000 oversize and overweight road movements as the industry is being set up over a three-year period. Add to this 30,000 semi-trailer loads of gas pipe already moving across the state to build the pipeline which will move the gas from its region of extraction to its point of export. There will also be a need for more pipe movements to build pipelines from the extraction sites to the junction with the main pipeline. TMR reckon they have been unable to get an idea of the quantity involved, so far.

Each drilling rig involved in the LNG industry requires 10 excess mass and dimension permits every time it is moved from one drill site to another. The industry expects to drill 40,000 wells in the next five years, this equates to 400,000 permits being issued to get the job done. For each drill site there have to be 10 servicing moves at each of the 40,000 wells over the next 30 years, each requiring 10 extra dimension permits, which equates to another four million permits over the life of the drill sites.

All of these sites also need one kilometre of sleeve pipe each. This means another 40,000km of pipe will need to be shifted over the roads of Queensland as the sites develop. TMR have yet to estimate how many trailer loads this will equate to. Water and sand is also used in the LNG fracking process and one example is the fact it will mean 300,000 tonnes of fracking sand being moved from the South Australia to Queensland. The roads built for the equipment to access the sites will require three million tonnes of road base to be moved into the area.

Plants known as gas trains, they turn natural gas into LNG, will be built near the gas extraction sites. 26 are currently in planning but seven are already in progress. Each one cover 87,000 m² of ground and the component parts are being built around the world as well as in Queensland ready to be transported to the new sites. Currently, TMR issue 3600 permits for over mass or over dimension but are expecting this to increase to 3600 per week as the LNG industry starts to gear up.

TMR have, so far, examined two of the sites going ahead and they have found they will need 45 low-pressure skids weighing 115 tonnes and another 45 at 110 tonnes to move them to their sites. Add to this another to 150 pipe rack modules, which are extremely long and high, 90 gas extraction systems plus 74 switch rooms at 100 tonnes each. Moving the seven confirmed gas trains out to their prospective sites is expected to require 6300 police escorts as well as 11,600 pilots. This is more pilots than are currently registered in Queensland.

The new gas terminals being built at Curtis Island, near Gladstone, will create a large number of over dimensional and over weight movements in the Gladstone area and are already causing a great deal of traffic congestion. This construction is also set to create five million tonnes of freight consignments from Brisbane to Gladstone, equating to 25,000 additional loads on the Bruce Highway each year, 10 per cent of which will be excess dimension and excess mass.

To the west, in the Surat Basin, 715,000 tonnes of freight will be moved from Brisbane to Roma. Mining is also expanding in Central and Northern Queensland requiring another, estimated, 3.6 million tonnes of freight, much of it travelling as a wide or heavy load. Increased mining activity also equates to an increase in the amount of dangerous goods, including explosives, being transported across the roads of Queensland.

Increased resources and mining activity requires workers to work on them and they all require accommodation. Just as an example, TMR expect 2500 accommodation units to be shifted by road from Brisbane to the Caval Ridge mining development and another 4500 shipping containers to be required at the new Hancock coal development.

All of this activity is putting a strain on the fuel transport industry, trying to get fuel out to these sites so the work can be done. Williams quotes a company in Queensland which is already flying drivers on a ‘week on, week off’ basis from Brisbane to Townsville to drive AAB Quad Road trains, B-triples and A-doubles full of fuel for the mine sites.

The increase in minerals being mined in Queensland may still be considerable investment in railway infrastructure in those areas. TMR estimate this will mean an extra 25,000 type I road train journeys just to move the sleepers for the rail line into place. Activity on a similar scale will be needed to move the steel rails and the ballast on which the sleepers sit.

At the same time as this is going on, the Queensland government is also looking to increase beef production in the coming years, going from 4,000,000 to 8,000,000 head of cattle being processed in the state. Other agricultural products are also set to increase and Williams quotes the example of Balonne Shire, which in 2011 saw the cotton harvest account for 30,500 truckloads.

“I don't know, and don't have any information on, many projects which are in planning,” says Williams. “There is a lot we don't know and it keeps changing as business keeps changing their plans on a day-to-day basis. But there is also a lot we do know. Up to this point in time, our officers have found, as a result of our investigations, a lot of information. I have looked at it and thought, at one point, ‘this can't be true’. So I looked at another organisation's attempt to try and quantify this and the Queensland Infrastructure Assessment Organisation predicted the extra road heavy vehicle demand in terms of trips per day will increase from 2300 to around 4700 by the year 2014.”

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