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Fletcher Energy in the gun with regional council

By Aimee McClinchy

Friday 12th May 2000

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Fletcher Challenge Energy is waiting to hear if it is to be sued after admitting a fourth oil spill came from its Pohokura 1 oil rig in Taranaki.

The regional council is to decide on June 7 whether to sue over those four events.

The Taranaki Regional Council this week revealed there had been six spills. The latest spill was five litres of diesel which occurred in the last few days as Fletcher Energy packed up the number one rig and moved 4km north-west to start the second well.

But the council's resource management director Bill Bayfield said the sixth was minor and would not be added to the investigation.

The council accepted the fifth was not caused by Fletcher.

Mr Bayfield said although the spills had not caused any long-term damage to sea and shore life and the Ngati Rahiri hapu had lifted its ban on seafood collection, the council was considering action including going to court.

"It absolutely has to be an option given that the spills were unauthorised, that is no consent was given, and some were unnotified."

If the company notified the council and fronted up it helped, Mr Bayfield said.

"We sincerely hope the housekeeping [of number two rig] does not have the same record."

The Pohokura prospect is considered bountiful, with Fletcher Energy estimating the field contains mean reserves of 5000 billion cu ft of gas and 25 million barrels of condensate.

The seriousness of the large number of spills in the few weeks Fletcher Energy has operated the rig, jointly owned by German company Preussag Energie, Steel Petroleum Mining and Todd Energy, is compounded by the rig being so close to shore - 4km off Motunui.

Once sold, Fletcher Energy may move its head office from Auckland to New Plymouth, where the majority of its New Zealand operations are based.

But Fletcher Challenge Energy spokesman Stephen Jones said Fletcher did not have any plans to move.

He said Fletcher had cleaned up the spills and modified its procedures but would not allow its investigation report, still being considered by the council, to be released.

Fletcher wanted to wait until it heard what the council would do before considering its next action.

"We are clearly disappointed any spills occur; operating so close to shore is an extra onus on us to be careful."

Fletcher had previously admitted responsibility for three of the spills, which occurred in the weekend of April 1-2 after the first rig begun drilling. In one of these, 50 litres reached a 2km beach stretch and tests showed the sand was contaminated.

In another, two litres of oil did not wash up, and the third three-litre spill, caused by a flare not igniting, was dispersed.

But Mr Jones confirmed a fourth spill that happened earlier as the number one rig was set up was also caused by Fletcher Energy. In that instance, half a litre of lubricating oil was discharged but did not reach the beach.

Small amounts of oil can spread kilometres across the water, sitting on its surface.

The fifth spill was tested and did not contain hydrocarbons, which means the oil came from elsewhere.

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