From oil rags to riches

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 water- drilling 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 Sydney- based 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 four- gallon (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.

Acknowledgments to Ron Lambert for information and pictures.

Taranaki Daily News