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Oil industry faces skills shortages as drilling ramps up this summer

Friday 20th September 2013

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New Zealand's oil and gas sector needs to invest more in professional training for its drilling workforce to meet the growing demand for expertise, especially when offshore explorers hire drilling staff whose experience is mainly onshore, the New Zealand Petroleum Summit was told.

In a panel session discussing the upsurge in onshore and offshore drilling activity likely in New Zealand over the next two years, Petroleum Skills NZ general manager Sheree Long said training emphasis was strong on health and safety, but training in technical proficiency was often lacking.

"We are attracting the highest calibre of people, but drilling could be more professionalised as an industry," she told the New Zealand Petroleum Summit conference in Wellington. "They're often enrolled health, safety and environment training but not practical competence."

With activity in New Zealand much lower and more poorly paid than in Australia, skills shortages were a common feature in the industry, especially during phases of heightened activity.

Some three oil rigs will be working in New Zealand coastal and offshore waters over the coming summer, drilling multiple exploration and production wells, and in one case drilling in deep-water Taranaki for the first time and some six onshore rigs. Close to 100 new wells are expected to be drilled in the next two years.

Long said there was a "new breed of responsible, safe drillers" in the industry, but there was "room for improvement."

With the industry heading into a period of relatively high activity, it was an ideal time to implement an industry-wide "competency framework" to improve not only regulatory compliance but also skills competence.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union senior national industrial officer Paul Tolich said there was a trend for experienced onshore drilling staff to be poached for work on offshore rigs and that "there could be a lot more training on technical aspects."

The session facilitator, Colin Finnegan of global engineering services procurement company SPD, said there were encouraging signs that expatriate New Zealanders were being attracted home by the prospect of a continuous programme of work for the next couple of years, which would likely see up to $2 billion spent in New Zealand waters and onshore.

While the scale of activity in New Zealand made it hard for the industry to compete with Australia, where thousands of wells are drilled annually, there were professional challenges in the New Zealand environment which were attractive, said Todd Energy's general manager, operations, Andrew Clennett.

For example, Todd's current programme involving a 5,000 metre deep managed pressure well in the Mangahewa field was "world-class stuff", while New Zealand's working conditions were favourable compared to Australia's.

"You're 30 minutes up the road, not working in 35 degree heat and depending on a dodgy satellite call to speak to your family."

Tolich said the industry was a source of highly paid work, but vulnerable to criticism by a fearful public, with critics "just waiting for a decent mishap that will confirm their views."

In a separate session, Labour Party energy spokesperson Moana Mackey made clear her party supported the oil and gas industry, saying it was too valuable to abandon, and skirted questions on whether Labour might seek to curtail deep-sea exploration and production.

Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said he was opposed to finding and exploiting any new oil and gas deposits since any such finds could only contribute to "runaway climate change." When pressed for clarity on what was "in" or "out" from a Greens policy perspective, Norman ruled out deep-sea drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, apparently leaving onshore and shallow water offshore drilling on the table.

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