Story: Taranaki region
Page 10 – Energy and ironsands
Oil and gas
Taranaki’s petroleum industry dates back to the first decades of Pākehā settlement. Since 1865 attempts have been made to tap oil deposits around the region.
Relatively small amounts of oil were produced and refined in the first half of the 20th century. The modern petrochemical industry was established in the 1950s.
A refined bunch
New Zealand’s first oil refinery opened at New Plymouth in July 1913 with appropriate fanfare and an impressive programme of speeches. The Taranaki Daily News commented, tongue-in-cheek, on the occasion: ‘The building with its intricate maze of spirals and whorls and retorts … has now been completed, and it was opened yesterday in the presence of a large gallery of enthusiasts, most of whom were, or ought to have been, if their comments can be taken at face value, experts in the refining of anything from pure gold to influences … The average shareholder does not know what a refinery is, and he is prone to regard it as something between a finishing school for girls and a meeting of the Brotherhood.’1
A number of major oil and gas fields were discovered between 1959 and the early 2000s, including:
- the Kapuni gas field (1959)
- the Māui offshore gas field (1969)
- a number of inland oil fields – McKee (1979), Kaimiro (1982), Tariki (1986), Waihapa (1987), Ngaere (1987), Ngātoro (1992) and Windsor (2000)
- a number of offshore oil and gas fields – Kupe (1986), Rimu (1999) and Tūī (2004).
Taranaki became the centre of New Zealand’s oil and gas production, with a number of downstream gas processing plants and associated petrochemical industries. In 2008, 400 people were directly employed in oil and gas extraction in the region.
Taranaki was at the forefront of the early development of hydroelectricity in New Zealand. Of the first 14 public electricity supplies in New Zealand, seven were in Taranaki. Most were hydroelectric schemes, based on the seasonally consistent water supply from Mt Taranaki’s many streams. The first venture was at Stratford in 1898, followed by Parihaka (1899), Pātea (1902), Hāwera (1903), Inglewood (1904), Waitara (1905) and New Plymouth (1906).
An oily story
In 1877 Polish writer Sygurd Wiśniowski published a novel based in New Zealand – including Taranaki – during the 1860s conflict. Tikera, or children of the Queen of Oceania, was published in Polish and only appeared in English in 1972. Wiśniowski, who visited New Zealand in 1864, describes soldiers mining in Taranaki: ‘A martial mode gradually prevailed over the speculative fever raging in the garrison. Although each day the drills penetrated deeper into the earth and came closer to solving the mystery of the oily streams … one detachment after another march merrily away, hoping to gain a brilliant victory and to return safe and sound, after a short campaign, to the riches awaiting them.’2
The black sands of Taranaki’s beaches contain the mineral titanomagnetite, which has a high percentage of iron eroded from the region’s volcanoes.
Some of the first immigrants to New Plymouth began a series of trial iron smeltings, but these proved unsuccessful. During the late 1850s and 1860s Captain Edward Morshead took some Taranaki ironsand to Britain, where it was smelted. The resulting steel was highly praised.
In 1872 Edward Metcalf Smith, a gunsmith from England, formed the New Zealand Titanic Steel and Iron Company and built a smelter at Te Hēnui in New Plymouth. After a series of failures, Smith finally produced Taranaki’s first iron in 1876.
There was little iron production in Taranaki after 1883, though in the 1970s and 1980s ironsand from Waipipi (near Waverley) was exported to Japan.