Fuel Pipeline Rupture in New Zealand Causes Jet Fuel Crises

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and the main gateway for air travelers. More than five million international passengers arrived through Auckland Airport in the twelve months prior to August, 2017.

The importance of critical infrastructure protection was recently highlighted by a major incident approximately 87 miles north of Auckland which stopped the flow of fuel.

NZ Refineries is New Zealand’s only oil refinery that produces fuel oil products such as petrol, diesel and jet fuel. The only fuel distribution depot for Auckland is about three miles from the airport and is supplied through a single 10-inch pipeline from the Marsden point oil refinery, spanning 106 miles in length.

On September 14, NZ Refineries’ control room detected a loss of pressure in the pipe. Pumping fuel was shut down and a helicopter was immediately dispatched to assess the pipeline route for the potential cause. The rupture was swiftly located near the township of Ruakaka. The site was isolated and environmental cleanup of spilled fuel commenced. By the beginning of the following week, the site was safe for exposure and repair of the damaged section of pipe was started.

Upon exposure of the ruptured section, it was found that critical insulation to protect the pipe from corrosion had been damaged and, therefore, weakened the section. Score marks on the pipe indicated it had been hit by an external force. The damage was consistent with that of excavator bucket teeth. It is thought the  damage occurred sometime over the past three years as there were no signs of recent excavation and an internal inspection made in 2014 showed no signs of weakness.

It took 10 days to repair the pipe to the point that fuel could again be pumped at a reduced pressure to the distribution depot in Auckland.

The Consequences
The impact to industry and the wider community by the loss of this critical piece of infrastructure for a 10-day period was extensive.

It was initially reported that the damage was minor and repairs would be started immediately. However, on Sunday, September 17, Auckland Airport announced that airlines would only be able to use 30% of their normal fuel allocation. What had begun as a minor pipeline rupture was now having a global effect as both domestic and international airlines were forced to make refuelling stops at other airport locations in the Pacific region or cancel services altogether.

At the height of the crisis:
• 110 flights per day were cancelled
• Trans-Pacific flights to the United States were forced to make a fuel stop in Fiji
• Some Trans-Tasman flights to Australia were refuelling empty planes in Wellington prior to picking up passengers in Auckland
• Approach flight paths were changed to decrease jet fuel usage, causing increased noise pollution over suburban areas
• Some petrol stations throughout Auckland ran out of fuel
• 48 additional fuel trucks brought fuel from the refinery to Auckland each day
• City traffic lights were resynchronized to accommodate the increased number of fuel trucks, causing delays for other motorists
• HMNZ Endeavour, a Navy fuel supply ship, was requisitioned to transport diesel fuel from the refinery to Auckland, forcing a scheduled Navy exercise with the Singapore Navy to be cancelled
• Public officials were instructed not to travel by air

The immediate cost in terms of revenue loss to NZ Refineries is estimated to be around $15 million NZD. Societal costs include impact to the airlines concerned, passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed, implementation of government disaster recovery processes, financial impact to petrol stations with limited access to fuel, and the inconveniences to the general public in and around Auckland whom had to endure increased traffic and noise.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?
While the damaged pipe was included in the national (www.beforeUdig.co.nz) One Call service, there is little regulation to ensure an excavator uses the service to obtain plans and inform the asset owner prior to commencing work. In this case, had the pipeline owner been informed, they could have immediately contacted the excavator to provide an onsite standover and instruction to the operator.

Once the investigation into this incident is complete, the Minister for Energy will review current regulations to ensure the ongoing protection of New Zealand’s critical infrastructure and prevent a similar incident occurring in the future.

This incident should serve as a reminder to all owners of critical infrastructure,
and those excavators planning to work near them, to not only comply with regulations but to also adopt proven best practices to ensure the protection of assets and the health and wellbeing of workers and the community.

This incident continues to be under investigation by local authority, central
government and the asset owner. BeforeUdig has offered assistance and involvement in any governmental review of critical infrastructure damage prevention regulations.

Phil Cornforth is beforeUdig Country Manager. He can be reached at phil.cornforth@pelicancorp.com.

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