What do planes need to fly — apart from wings and runways to take off and land? Fuel, and lots of it. It’s all well and good talking about road and rail infrastructure to Badgerys Creek, the subject of a song and dance announcement this morning in Sydney (where everyone only wanted to talk about Barry O’Farrell), but fuel supplies for the new airport haven’t been mentioned.

It will be hard, it will be expensive, and it will raise objections from the public. At the moment, jet fuel is supplied by Caltex from its Kurnell refinery on Botany Bay, in the eastern suburbs. Jet fuel is sent to Sydney airport (400,000 litres an hour) by a dedicated pipeline and is also sent to Newcastle in a product pipeline, along with diesel and various grades of petrol. Fuel there is used by the civilian airport and by the RAAF at Williamtown. Petrol and diesel is sent west and to the north coast parts of New South Wales.

But Caltex is closing its Kurnell refinery, meaning from next year jet fuel will be imported, stored at Kurnell, and then pumped to Sydney airport via the pipeline. But Caltex will no longer be pumping jet fuel to Newcastle — it will go on the road in tankers.

The reason? Jet fuel contains high levels of sulphur — and all other fuels in the pipeline are low-sulphur fuels. At the moment these fuels mix at stages in the pipeline, which is a type of cross-contamination. These high-sulphur residues are sent back to Kurnell via the pipeline and re-injected into the refining process and turned into new fuels. But with the closure of Kurnell, that will no longer be possible; to end the contamination, jet fuel will no longer be sent to Newcastle by pipeline, and will go on the road in tankers.

So how will the fuel get to Badgerys Creek?

Previously, planning for the second airport’s fuel supply had the Sydney Newcastle pipeline supplying the fuel to Plumpton in Sydney’s western suburbs (the pipeline turns north from there and heads to Newcastle). There has been talk of building a dedicated pipeline to Badgerys Creek from Plumpton, or using tankers to carry the fuel around 20 kilomteres across western Sydney. But that was before Caltex decided to close Kurnell.

So now the fuel needed for Badgerys Creek will either have to go via a new pipeline from Kurnell (around 40 kilometres through some of the most built-up parts of Sydney), or tankers will be needed to carry jet fuel from the Silverwater terminal in the mid-west of the city. But getting jet fuel in the pipeline to Silverwater would again involve the contamination of petrol and diesel fuels, which would still have to be processed to clean it up (making the supply of jet fuel uneconomic).

The Silverwater terminal is owned by Mobil, but Caltex is the biggest user. It is the major fuel distribution terminal in Sydney’s west, after Caltex’s Banksmeadow terminal, on the western side of Botany Bay, opposite the Kurnell refinery.

None of those options have been discussed in all the talk of Badgerys Creek, nor the plans by Caltex to end using the Sydney Newcastle pipeline to carry jet fuel to Newcastle, through the closest point to the new airport at Plumpton. The documents released yesterday by the government as part of its announcement don’t mention fuel, except about how much of it might be dumped on the good citizens of western Sydney.

Oil industry sources say Caltex could continue to carry jet fuel to Newcastle, and then send back the contaminated fuel (called “slops” in industry jargon) by road tanker to Sydney, where it would be stored and then shipped to the nearest refinery for reprocessing (in Brisbane). But this would increase the cost of jet fuel to the point where no company would be interested in supply contracts for the new airport.

The best bet at the moment is road movement of fuel from Banksmeadow to Badgerys Creek, which would mean jet fuel tankers using the M5 — already dominated by trucks coming from Port Botany — and M7. Moving fuel from Sydney Airport would not be possible because the existing pipeline from Banksmeadow is understood to lack capacity, unless there is significant upgrading (which will be costly).

How many trucks would be needed? Assuming Badgerys Creek kicks off with fuel needs of around 10% of KSA, that could be around 32 truck movements there (and another 32 back) every day, which will then, depending on the success of the airport, build up into the hundreds per day over time.

Road movement of fuel is a controversial issue in Sydney after the Cootes tanker crash last October at Mona Vale in Sydney’s northern beaches — two people were killed and others badly hurt. The resulting investigation into Cootes operations in NSW and Victoria almost caused Cootes’ owner McAleese to close down the business. Good luck to MPs telling voters they need dozens and then hundreds of jet fuel tankers going through their neighbourhoods. Still, it’s probably easier than telling them they’re putting a pipeline in.

Peter Fray

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