Construction of the enormous Darwin tank farm is now well under way, with the finished facility to hold 300 million litres of aviation fuel to support US military training in the top end and, if necessary, US regional military operations.
This is a very significant expansion in defence fuel reserves in the Northern Territory. In comparison, new fuel tanks for RAAF Tindal hold six million litres.
Though this will be US fuel, mostly JP5, an existing cooperative agreement allows Australian use.
In September last year, the US awarded the contract to US firm Crowley, which in turn contracted Tetra Tech Proteus of Perth for design and engineering company Saunders International of Sydney for construction.
The total project is worth $270 million.
Crowley is a long-established family-owned logistics and shipping company founded in San Francisco in 1892. The company now has a global presence, and among much else, supplies fuel infrastructure and fuel for the US military and allies.
For the Darwin fuel project, Crowley has established a local subsidiary Crowley Australia.
Vice-president and director Sean Thomas said Crowley had been a trusted partner of the US military for nearly 70 years.
“The project in Darwin was of keen interest because it builds off a piece of business we have had a lot of success in doing,” he said.
“The Pacific is a very strategic location. There is a pacing threat in the Chinese and so we along with our allied partners are keenly interested in how to keep the Indo-Pacific open and free.”
Thomas said the Darwin fuel store would support those initiatives, providing logistical support to the US and partners including Australia and others.
He said the company’s ambitions in Australia and the Pacific weren’t limited to energy infrastructure.
“Australia is a strategic partner of the US. It is going to be absolutely critical to continuing to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
“Crowley sees an opportunity to come and be a good corporate citizen in the Australian market, complement the Australian industry and the men and women, the citizenry of Australia, to help bolsters those type of capabilities which are core to our competencies.”
Thomas said the Darwin project was a good opportunity to introduce Crowley to the Australian market.
Construction started in December on the 12.8 hectare site on Darwin’s East Arm precinct. Eleven tanks will be built and the facility will take fuel from the Port of Darwin via a dedicated pipeline.
Thomas said Crowley was aware the Port of Darwin was operated by Chinese owned company Landbridge.
“That is an issue for the Australian government. From our perspective, we understand that the US government and the Australian government had comes to agreements around what the specific requirement would be that was ultimately put into the tender that we responded to and are executing.”
The East Arm site will host multiple fuel distribution modes, including capabilities to load multiple road trains.
It will also feature facilities for on-site addition of additives to take civil grade jet fuel to military specification.
Construction of the actual tanks is imminent. The facility will be fully operational mid-September 2023.
Crowley actually started planning for this project in January 2018, well before the US military stated its need.
“This was really us thinking strategically about where do logistical nodes need to be in the Pacific to support the requirements of the US military and others,” Thomas said.
“We shared some of those ideas and concepts with the US military back in Washington as well as in Honolulu.”
That left Crowley well-placed when the US did publicly announce its requirement, though it still had to compete against three others in an open tender contest.