"Stormy Petrol ?"
The story of the Marsden Point oil refinery and the associated coastal tanker operation.

This book is still in preparation but it is now largely complete. The title is a triply relevant name, firstly a comment on the stormy southern seas through which New Zealand's oil supplies were shipped, secondly a reference to the bumpy administrative road for those controlling the system, and thirdly a play on the Petrel, one of the birds of the open ocean and chosen as the name of one of the coastal tankers (Taiko = black petrel) The coastal tanker story has a special interest as a story of competing oil companies that had to cooperate in refining and distribution but fought tooth and nail in other respects. Even their cooperation was generally cautious and guarded. It usually went only as far as it had to. The companies remained fiercely protective of their own positions and their own information. That incomplete cooperation was at the root of many distribution problems, particularly when the companies allowed their stock levels to run too high or too low within the generally tight storage system.

It tells the story of the major changes that took place in the oil industry in New Zealand from the mid-1960s. That was when the oil refinery at Marsden Point came into operation. This joint venture by the New Zealand oil companies was parallelled by a joint shipping operation. It is a story that is almost entirely unknown but it is the history of an important part of New Zealand's infrastructure through a period when New Zealand as a whole underwent great changes.

The coastal tanker operation was overseen by a small group known as Coco, a convenient abbreviation for The Coastal Distribution Coordination Committee, and I was involved in the work of its tiny secretariat for nearly 22 years. I always felt that my title, the Coco Secretary, was very suggestive of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The ships, the products, the ports, the people involved, the way that the work was done. These are some of the ingredients of a fascinating story, and there are many highlights and crises along the way.

The refinery at Marsden Point was opened in 1964. It was expanded in 1985, coming on line again at the end of the year, and the Refinery Auckland Pipeline was brought into service at the same time. The refinery has since had further significant development but that is beyond the reach or intention of this book. Its ownership has also changed, with Shell selling its holding as part of its withdrawal from all of its downstream activities in New Zealand.

There is much here that is factual description but the stresses and strains of this operation are never far away. It is a story that will be informative. It is also a story that deals with resourcefulness in the face of never-ending problems, the objective being always to succeed in maintaining oil supplies to the New Zealand public. Only rarely did the problems emerge into public view, though it was often a very close call.

When I retired from Coco in October 1992, after a working life of nearly 43 years, almost all of it in the oil industry, the oil companies decided to transform the operation, setting up Coastal Tankers Limited as a new company. Ken Harris came in as CEO and wrote an epilogue for "Stormy Petrol", saying that Coco's processes had been far ahead of their time and could hardly be improved upon. It had been a great experience and I consider myself fortunate to have been given the job of Coco Secretary in 1975 and to have had 17 very worthwhile years in the job. I had been involved in this coastal shipping operation, on secondment from London, from 1967 to 1971 and had handed over to David Littlejohn in 1971. When David moved elsewhere in 1975, our family had emigrated from Britain to New Zealand in 1972 and Des Carroll, Shell's Operations Manager, said "Would you like your old job back, Mike?" I am very glad that I accepted the offer. It was a life-changing move in many ways.

When the oil industry was deregulated in 1988 the results were dramatically different from the effects of the later reform of the electricity industry. In the oil market there were frequent supply problems but they had no impact on consumer prices and (apart from the worldwide oil shocks of 1973 and 1979) they led to no warnings of shortages in the market place.

In telling this story it has been possible to draw extensively on documents of the Union Steam Ship Company that have been deposited in Wellington's Museum of the City and Sea. These have provided information on the coastal tankers that didn't find its way to oil industry files. Much information has come from people who were involved in the overall field of shipping, refining and oil marketing. They have been able to add valuable comments on the author's own recollections and opinions. Alex Bridger of Caltex (later Chevron) made invaluable contributions to the story.

Personal notes, correspondence and memories have been very fruitful. People have often tended to keep interesting records of events in which they were involved. Newspaper reports, available on library microfilm, have proved invaluable. Diligent searches on the Internet have uncovered a surprising amount of information and have also led to contacts in New Zealand and overseas who have been able to add their experiences and recollections. Diaries and other reminiscences published on web sites have given useful and interesting highlights. Coastal tanker operations have been the subject of university theses.

The source information for this story is thus very varied and extensive. Internal records have hence become a smaller part of it. In many ways it has made it possible to see and to draw out some of the patterns and problems in the coastal tanker operation that were not always obvious when one was immersed in the day-to-day work.

It isn’t possible to write about oil industry operations without using a lot of words that will be unfamiliar to a general reader who has had no involvement in the industry. I have tried to write as clearly as possible and to use “normal” words as much as possible. But in writing about refinery operations, shipping operations, port operations and so on, there are many words that belong to those operations and are the only appropriate ones to use. The problem can be resolved in two ways. When a specialist word is used only once, then it is quite easy to explain and define the word there and then, in the simplest possible language. If a word is used time and time again, then it is much easier to explain it in a glossary. That allows space to give a good explanation. So if you come across an unfamiliar word, or a word that you would like to check, do go to the glossary and I hope you will find it there. You may well find the glossary worth reading in its own right. It rapidly grew into something of real additional interest.

That sort of "insider" knowledge proved to be a major problem in Shell's own history, "Shell in New Zealand", that was published in 2004. Though it was written by Peter Cooke, a professional author and a member of PHANZA, he created many devastating errors in that book through his lack of knowledge. Even the nominal supervision by members of the Shell Heritage Society proved inadequate and failed to detect Peter's failings. The result was a very inadequate and faulty book that I subsequently rewrote as "She'll be right at last", as these web pages elsehwere describe.

When writing on one's own it is hard to stand back and see the results objectively. It has been gratifying to have positive comment from those who have had small parts of the text to read. One has written "I particularly enjoyed your commentary, humour and personal anecdotes". That sort of comment is immensely encouraging, especially as it came from someone who has done a good deal of writing, who knows the subject, and who would never say something unless he believed it.

Finally, from material that has been "squirrelled away" it has been possible to introduce enough facts and figures to make the book into a thorough presentation of quantities of oil movement, the work loads of the tankers, the changes in the market, the characteristics of the tankers. It is a book full of information but at the same time it is a story that is likely to interest, to amuse, and to hold the attention of any reader.

"Stormy Petrol" has a foreword written by Barry Dineen, former Managing Director of Shell Oil New Zealand Limited, to whom I am most grateful for a very handsome and unreserved commendation.

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