From oil rags to riches

Be­fore Taranaki’s oil and gas boom came the bust of nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies chas­ing the re­gion’s black gold.

Taranaki Daily News - - Magazine -

Taranaki is ac­knowl­edged around the coun­try and the world as the en­ergy cap­i­tal of New Zealand. And just to con­firm that sta­tus, the re­gion is braced for a surge in oil and gas ex­plo­ration and drilling.

The prov­ince has long boasted of its en­vied ac­cess to vast quan­ti­ties of black gold, which have bol­stered its es­tab­lished white-gold dairy­ing econ­omy.

De­spite that great bounty, it has not al­ways been that way. In­trepid im­mi­grants sensed the po­ten­tial that ex­isted around Par­itutu’s mag­nif­i­cent rock and its much grander cousin, Mt Taranaki. But for decades they dug and drilled with­out suc­cess, and com­pa­nies were formed and then fell into one empty well af­ter another.

Be­neath Par­itutu, Mo­turoa would be­come one of the old­est and cer­tainly one of the small­est, com­mer­cially de­vel­oped oil­fields in the world. How­ever, it would be a story told over many frus­trat­ing decades.

Among the first for­agers was gun­smith E M Smith. It was early in 1865 that he col­lected sam­ples of oil around the rocks and boul­ders at Ng­amotu Beach. And he was not alone. Three new ar­rivals in town were ea­ger to find the elu­sive black gold. John Regi­nald Scott, John Smith, and a Mr Macdon­ald be­gan prospect­ing at­tempts in late June 1865. They found oil but also a great deal of Pro­vin­cial Gov­ern­ment red tape.

Un­de­terred they joined up with lo­cal publi­can and fi­nan­cial backer Josiah Carter and An­drew Ross Young, who added his ex­per­tise to the group. By Jan­uary 1866 they had struck gas, and enough of it that a fan was in­stalled to ven­ti­late the shaft af­ter work­men were over­come by the fumes and briefly hos­pi­talised.

In March the first oil seeped to the sur­face. It was ‘‘a thick green­ish-brown colour’’ from a depth of 20 me­tres.

The drillers pushed deeper, another 16m, and then brought in a wa­ter­drilling der­rick from Nel­son to re­place the tri­pod struc­ture. Later that year the well reached 60m, with an oil seep­age cal­cu­lated at 230 litres per week. By July 1866 the ef­fort was such that the Taranaki Her­ald re­ported that ‘‘the petroleum works at the sug­ar­loaves are as­sum­ing an ex­ten­sive ap­pear­ance’’.

Four other wells sprang up and a sec­ond com­pany, the Peo­ple’s Petroleum Com­pany, was formed by lo­cal busi­ness­men and chaired by Richard Run­dle. It be­gan work in May on leased land 500m away from the first group’s Alfa well, dubbed ‘‘Vic­to­ria’’ as a trib­ute to the Queen.

The con­tin­ued ac­tiv­ity at­tracted a larger ri­val, the Taranaki Petroleum Com­pany, which was formed by in­flu­en­tial lo­cal in­vestors. Amid al­le­ga­tions of Pro­vin­cial Gov­ern­ment favouritis­m, Carter’s strug­gling syn­di­cate was bought out by Taranaki Petroleum late in 1866, its Al­pha well hav­ing pro­duced barely 500 litres of oil. The well was closed, and in June 1867, the Beta well was also aban­doned.

It would be another 20 years be­fore in­ter­est would again sur­face in the field.

In 1889 Taranaki’s oil re­sources were again in the spot­light with the for­ma­tion of Lon­don-based com­pany the New Zealand Petroleum and Iron Syn­di­cate.

The di­rec­tors were Sir Julius Vo­gel and New Ply­mouth lawyer Oliver Sa­muel. In late 1890, with Cana­dian driller W E Booth in charge of op­er­a­tions, the com­pany be­gan drilling near the break­wa­ter.

It pro­duced 700 litres a day from a depth of 270m but did lit­tle to spark en­thu­si­asm from its over­seas in­vestors, and even a hur­ried trip to Eng­land by Sa­muel only gained enough ex­tra cap­i­tal to re­pay debts. Gath­er­ing a group of lo­cal and Syd­ney­based back­ers, Sa­muel bought the plant and ex­plo­ration rights, and at­tempted un­suc­cess­fully to re-open the bore. Sa­muel and his back­ers drilled a fur­ther eight wells, the most suc­cess­ful of them be­ing their the No 3 well. Fire de­stroyed the der­rick in its first year of op­er­a­tions but it was quickly re­placed and pro­duced oil for five years.

But it was not un­til 1906 that the oil fields of Taranaki would be­gin to pay back on their po­ten­tial.

In April of that year the Mo­turoa Petroleum Com­pany, which was formed in 1905, blew out an im­pres­sive quan­tity of gas along with oil, which con­tin­ued flow­ing for some time. Oil fever hit New Ply­mouth and share prices went through the roof. Ru­mours of a takeover bid by United States gi­ant Stan­dard Oil bub­bled to the sur­face, spark­ing a pub­lic protest.

Visi­tors flocked to see for them­selves, the Taranaki Her­ald re­port­ing that ‘‘a Palmer­ston North gen­tle­man was at the bore this morn­ing, and for his ben­e­fit the tap was turned slightly, when oil rushed out with im­mense force, fill­ing a four­gal­lon (18 litre) tin in a few mo­ments’’. Mo­turoa Petroleum needed more money to match the ex­pan­sion of its liq­uid as­set. More ru­mours sur­faced of a soon-to-be-built re­fin­ery.

A sec­ond Taranaki petroleum com­pany was floated in June 1906 and its No 2 bore proved to be a good pro­ducer, yield­ing over a mil­lion litres of crude oil in a year.

In the fol­low­ing fren­zied 18 months six fledg­ling com­pa­nies drilled wells at Vo­gel­town, Car­ring­ton Rd, Omata, Mo­turoa, and two at In­gle­wood.

In 1910 Christo­pher Carter be­came chair­man of Taranaki Petroleum. And by 1911, with Carter in the spot­light, the com­pany was yield­ing up to 110 bar­rels a week with more than 6000 bar­rels in stor­age.

The scene was set for even fur­ther ini­tia­tives in the field.

At the time James Dodds, a world au­thor­ity on the world’s oil­fields, vis­ited the coun­try. His book Oil Fields of New Zealand in­spired the back­ing of Bri­tish in­vestors and Taranaki (NZ) Oil­wells was formed. That im­pe­tus saw the build­ing of the pre­vi­ously ru­moured re­fin­ery be­gin in 1912, on a site next to the com­pany’s wells. The re­fin­ery had its own tin-mak­ing ma­chin­ery, and a mod­ern can-fill­ing unit, in ad­di­tion to the dis­till­ing process.

By 1913, 14 other com­pa­nies were op­er­at­ing, or plan­ning to do so, in op­po­si­tion to the Taranaki (NZ) Oil­wells Ltd.

Dur­ing the 1920s, ac­tiv­ity at Mo­turoa was sparse as the scene moved to in­land Taranaki and wells were bored at Tarata, Okoki and three at Whang­amo­mana.

A sec­ond re­fin­ery was built on high ground over­look­ing Port Taranaki and the first trial dis­til­la­tion was com­pleted in Oc­to­ber 1931.

For the next 20 years this re­fin­ery was op­er­ated on shoe­string bud­get al­most sin­gle-hand­edly by Wil­liam (Dick) Fossey, who mar­keted his prod­ucts through­out the North Is­land, in­clud­ing petrol out­lets in New Ply­mouth. Dur­ing World War II resid­ual wax from the re­fin­ery was sold to a Wellington firm for wa­ter­proof­ing tents.

The Mo­turoa field fi­nally closed in 1972 but not be­fore a flurry of ac­tiv­ity that saw a large num­ber of wells drilled near the break­wa­ter, Ng­amotu Beach and the break­wa­ter.

Dur­ing that time the ‘‘Peak’’ trade­mark was reg­is­tered, and in 1954 its petrol was avail­able at sev­eral New Ply­mouth ser­vice sta­tions.

In Jan­uary 1959, Shell D Arcy Todd (later to be Shell BP Todd) be­gan drilling at Palmer Rd, Ka­puni, in South Taranaki. The rest, shall we say, is his­tory.

Taranaki is once again in the spot­light on the world stage, with bor­ing op­er­a­tions through­out the re­gion. Nat­u­ral gas turned into methanol and gaso­line, as the hunt con­tin­ues into the fu­ture for black gold.

Pi­o­neer pumps: The Mo­turoa oil­field in 1913. To the left is the Taranaki petroleum 2 well, and Taranaki petroleum 1, and Taranaki petroleum 5. Inset: The Honey­field farm at Mo­turoa. Be­hind the farm­house is the Oliver Sa­muel’s No 8 well, drilled in 1901.

End prod­uct: Ken Butcher’s ser­vice sta­tion in Gill St, New Ply­mouth, circa 1935, dis­pens­ing gaso­line from a sin­gle pump.

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