Teacher Sarah Roberts outside her family farm. Photo by
Chris Morris.

Sarah Roberts’ family farm is being surrounded by the oil
and gas industry.

It is an advance that has gathered pace over eight years, as
oil wells have multiplied on her boundaries and fracking has
made the ground tremble beneath her feet.

Now the 50-year-old Taranaki teacher is calling for a
national debate about the future of the hydrocarbon race, and
urging people who see Taranaki’s oil and gas industry as an
example to think again.

The Otago Daily Times met Ms Roberts during its
week-long visit to Taranaki, visiting her farm near
Stratford, about 40 minutes south of New Plymouth.

Ms Roberts said her parents had first consented to a single
exploratory well in the Cheal oil and gas field, on the edge
of their farm, in 2006.

They received an assurance the search for oil – and natural
gas as a byproduct – would not be intrusive and was unlikely
to be successful, but all that had changed in the years
since, Ms Roberts said.

The number of wells had continued to multiply and now stood
at 76 – either drilled or consented – all within a 5km radius
of her farm, she said.

With them had come increased noise, dust and vibration
problems, as heavy vehicles rumbled down the quiet rural
road, she said.

A peek over the back fence revealed one of the drill sites,
visible across a paddock a few hundred metres from Ms
Roberts’ home, but little sign of the noise of activity that
came with it.

However, Ms Roberts said the disruption had grown so bad, she
had opted to move off the farm, which was now run by a
live-in manager.

It was a headache repeated in quiet rural corners across
Taranaki, as easy-to-reach resources disappeared and the
industry moved into new territory, she said.

While the biggest examples of the oil and gas industry’s
infrastructure were scattered across the province, the real
disruption was occurring, out of sight and out of mind, in
some of its quietest corners, she said.

”They affect the whole road … all these trucks, and all
this industry, is operating inside all these small
communities that are next to small towns that are next to New
Plymouth.

”Everyone feels the impact.”

Ms Roberts said each new exploration well meant trucks moving
in and out, carrying rig equipment and shaping earthworks,
before drilling commenced.

The process was repeated in reverse when it came time to
remove the rig, and more trucks followed if the companies
struck oil and began full production.

And, with new technologies and techniques being developed,
the oil companies returned again and again to go over old
ground, she said.

Ms Roberts said she had become increasingly concerned about
the industry’s impact and a perceived lack of monitoring, as
well as a vibration she could feel under her feet.

She found out later TAG Oil, developing the Cheal sites, had
been conducting horizontal fracking deep under her property.

”You could feel it in your feet,” she said.

Ms Roberts, a self-described environmental campaigner, said
she remained unconvinced by claims of economic benefits
arising from the industry.

While it brought jobs and riches for some, other rural
centres such as Hawera, in South Taranaki, appeared to miss
out, if empty shops and social deprivation were evidence.

”If it was such a lucrative business, why aren’t we seeing
it on the ground?”The industry was ultimately based on a
goldrush-style of ”boom and bust” economy, that made some
rich while leaving others behind.

The jobs and money would continue only as long as the oil
companies kept finding the next big strike, guaranteeing the
construction that came with each one, she said.

”All these industries rely on the next hit, the next oil
well … what will Taranaki look like when the whole
landscape is covered in oil and gas wells?”

She worried Taranaki was being held up as an example to other
regions, while its problems were ignored, and believed a
national debate was needed.

”I guess what I’m trying to say is ‘Is this what we want?’
… I don’t believe Taranaki should be held up and said `This
is how it should be rolled out all over New Zealand’.”

Her views found an ally in Urs Signer, a resident of
Parihaka, in Taranaki’s west, and the spokesman for Climate
Justice Taranaki.

As the group’s name suggests, Mr Signer wants fossil fuels
phased out – replaced by greater investment in renewable
energy, public transport and sustainable farming – to protect
the planet for future generations.

”That’s the justice in our name. We are interested in
creating economic activity, but not economic activity that’s
based on destruction … not this mad rat race that we have
going on at the moment.”

But, while the group took a moral position in the global
debate over climate change, it also tried to address the
impact the industry had on the ground in Taranaki, he said.

Mr Signer and his partner formed the group in 2010 in
response to the ”massive expansion” of oil and gas activity
taking place in the province, he said.

The group had a core membership of just ”six or seven”
people, but had succeeded in bringing the controversial
practice of fracking to national attention, resulting in
changes to the regulatory approach, he said.

Mr Signer acknowledged the jobs of some Taranaki people
depended on the industry’s presence, and he did not support
any wholesale shutdown of the industry overnight, but warned
that ”utilitarianism only goes so far”.

 


 

The view on the street
Do you support or oppose the oil and gas industry in
Taranaki, and why?

Kim Hapimarika (42), of Waitara,
Taranaki: ”I’m kind of against it. I’m a firm believer that
if you start mucking around you are going to cause all kinds
of problems. Mucking around with nature is not good.”

 

 

 

Philip Jones (36), artist, of
Taranaki: ”I’m in two minds about it, to be honest … you
can’t argue with the money it brings in … but then there’s
the other side of it. I love the sea. I love the surf.”

 

 

 

Kelvin Bishop (57), technical sales
support, of New Plymouth: ”I definitely support it. I work
amongst it. I supply products that stop leaks, so it’s in my
interest to get it right …it’s just brought a lot of
prosperity to the area.”

 

 

 

Vickie Dixon (50), real estate agent, New
Plymouth: ”I support it and I would absolutely have to say
that because my husband works in the oil and gas industry. So
do both my boys …It’s a big part of our economy.”

 

 

 

Fiona Caspary (53), retailer, formerly of
Taranaki: ”I don’t like the idea of the environmental
impact, but I drive around in a car and use oil and gas.”

 

 

 

Jason Churchill (34), truck driver, of
New Plymouth: ”I don’t really mind it. You need it for
industry. Without oil and gas, industry will cease to
exist.”

 

 

 

 

The view of main-street businesses
Do you support or oppose the oil and gas industry in
Taranaki, and why?

 


Peggy Savage, manager, Browning and Matthews Optometrists,
New Plymouth:”We can supply safety glasses to the industry,
so for us it’s a very positive thing. It’s something we
wouldn’t like to see not be part of our business.”

 

 

 

Leslie White, manager, T&T
Childrenswear, New Plymouth: ”It’s hard to know …I have
noticed a few more immigrants coming into New Plymouth with
their children and shopping.”

 

 

 

Roger French, owner, French
Photographics, New Plymouth: ”We get a few people in here we
recognise as being part of that industry. Obviously they
spend a bit of money here. They have generally got a few
dollars in their back pockets.”

 

 

 

Heather Marshall, owner, La Paige (linen
and giftware store), New Plymouth: ”A lot of that money is
not spent here in town … I wouldn’t say at this stage we
have seen great filtration of finances back through, not for
our business, anyway.”

 

 

 

Fran Bateman, owner, Sandwich Extreme, New
Plymouth: ”They [industry workers] would make up a large
percentage of our regulars … I think we have been very
lucky with the oil and gas industry being here.”

 

 

 

Paul Clarke, owner, Kingsway Menswear, New
Plymouth: ”We have got nothing but praise [for the
industry]. We think it’s brilliant for Taranaki. We are very
lucky.”

 

 

 


chris.morris@odt.co.nz

 

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