Gateway to the North

Darwin Port Corporation

The Port of Darwin is quickly gaining a reputation as Australia’s northern gateway of choice. The natural deep water harbour is located at the northern terminus of the AustralAsia Railway, offers easy access to nearby oil and gas fields as well as Asia’s fast growing economies, and is the only port with full access to multi-modal transport services between Townsville and Fremantle. Ideally situated to handle Australia’s expanding trade, the bustling port is already the distribution destination for most cargoes traveling through northern Australian seas, and is rapidly developing into a major hub for the oil and gas industry. The area has everything needed for efficient exporting to Asia, or importing to the south and west. “Darwin is a logical place [to ship through] because we have a good logistics hub,” remarks Darwin Port Corporation CEO Terry O’Connor. “We’ve got the rail connection, international shipping connections, and an international airport.” The Port of Darwin carries all the advantages of capital city infrastructure, including easy access to world class sporting and recreational facilities, university and research facilities, theatres, and hospitals.

The Darwin Port Corporation, a business division of the Northern Territory Government, employees a fulltime staff of 112 to manage and operate the facilities. The Corporation serves a wide range of shipping and cargo needs, including petroleum, avgas and other bulk liquids, offshore oil and gas rig services, container and general cargo, dry bulk imports and exports, livestock exports, cruise ships, and naval vessels. The Corporation similarly accepts a variety of non-trading vessels, particularly those associated with research, fishing, and pearling operations.

The Port of Darwin’s geographical position is ideal for meeting the shipping needs of both South Australia’s and West Australia’s resource industries. Darwin is becoming the port of choice for mining operations frustrated by congested Western Australian ports that are no longer able to accommodate large scale shipping requirements. For example, mining equipment bound for West Australia often passes through the Port of Darwin before finishing its journey by road. And, because the port provides common use of facilities and is able to operate with relatively small volume of cargoes, junior miners can easily take advantage of its prime location and offerings. “We have relatively small volumes in comparison to the larger export ports,” Mr O’Connor explains. “We are therefore able to tailor businesses to meet the junior miners’ requirements.”

The port is also well positioned to alleviate South Australia’s overburdened shipping lanes. Fuel and other essential southbound supplies move easily through the port each day and onto the AustralAsia Rail. The recently completed railway is key to the port’s ongoing expansion. “We’ve gone through a significant growth period since the Adelaide to Darwin railway opened,” Mr O’Connor reports. “The north-south rail link is a logistics backbone for central Australia that will become more heavily utilised in the future.”

The Port of Darwin is also an ideal stepping off point for companies involved in exploration and mining projects in Papua New Guinea. For many mining operations, Darwin has become a refreshing alternative to overcrowded eastern ports, even those situated somewhat closer to Papua New Guinea. “We have capacity in Darwin to be able to expand,” Mr O’ Connor explains. “Ports in the east coast are starting to find they’ve been built out or urbanised around. Darwin is unique in that it has relatively open areas which are available for development.” The port also boasts a shipping service dedicated exclusively to servicing Papua New Guinea, creating an “ideal logistics hub” for the resource sector. In addition, the Port of Darwin is well suited to overcome the rigours of the Papua New Guinea climate. “We live in the tropics. We work in the tropics,” Mr O’ Connor remarks. “We understand what the weather is like [and that] it is a harsh environment.”

Darwin harbour is the site of the Inpex Ichthys project, a $34 billion LNG processing facility. The Project will bring substantial social and economic benefits to the area, and to Australia as a whole, including jobs and training, business opportunities, and increased infrastructure. Ichthys’ construction will create an estimated 4,000 jobs in Darwin and an additional 1,000 offshore. After completion, the facility will permanently employ around 700 workers. The Ichthys project is projected to be a game changer for the entire region. “We see this facility being able to make Darwin a centre [for] offshore exploration and production in the north western waters,” Mr O’ Connor reports. In addition, “We will see engineering firms and those types of companies relocate to Darwin to take advantage of those facilities. For the Northern Territory there is a cost benefit that we will see spun off into the local community itself… there are enormous benefits across the GDP throughout the life of the 40 year project.”

Construction on the massive, five year project is already underway, and the Port of Darwin is responding with significant expansions to support both the Ichthys build and future resource sector projects. The East Arm Wharf Facilities’ Masterplan 2030 lays out an extensive, 20 year land-use strategy for the port and adjacent areas. An immediate increase in services to ensure maximum safety and efficiency is already underway, including the addition of two new Pilot Vessels, the implementation of a full Vessel Traffic Management System (VTS) by the middle of next year, and a new port management system which will be up and running by the end of 2012.

The current expansion of East Arm is underway with the development of a world class marine supply base adjacent to East Arm Wharf to aid the growing offshore oil and gas industries. The $104 million facility will be operated by ShoreASCO and is well placed to support exploration related business, development, and operational activities in the Arafura Sea, Timor Sea, and Browse Basin.

The Port of Darwin has had to overcome several challenges to successfully meet the increasing resource sector demands. Darwin city’s relatively remote location poses the greatest problem. Attracting skilled workers to the far-flung port has always been difficult. Ironically, the GFC has alleviated this problem, at least temporarily. “The world economy at the moment has proven to be a boon,” Mr O’Connor explains. “Attracting staff to Darwin has been relatively easy in the last few years.” He knows that won’t always be the case, and the team strives to provide a top notch work environment to attract and retain skilled staff for the future. Another challenge brought about by the remote location is a lack of nearby ports to lean on for advice or support. “We have to be innovative in our solutions because we can’t just ring up to find what happens next door,” Mr O’Connor explains. Furthermore, “that innovation sometimes is more expensive because we just don’t have that weight of numbers to be able to drive down the costs that come with it. The reality is that when you do any work in relatively remote areas, cost becomes an issue.”

To overcome these challenges, the corporation is linked in to organisations such as Ports Australia, and the team spends “a lot of time looking at other ports and benchmarking what we’re doing against other ports around the country and internationally.” The Corporation invests heavily in the development of its staff through specialist training programs. Most importantly, the team is getting the word out about Darwin’s excellent liveability. “It’s about selling Darwin as a holistic solution,” Mr O’Connor says. “It’s not just about one particular component; we’ve got to sell Darwin as a great lifestyle and [a good] work-life balance. This is a great place to be.” With everything that Darwin and the expanding port have to offer, it is an easy sell. Without a doubt, “The future is good and will continue to be good.”

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January 21, 2020, 12:22 AM AEDT

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