Nigel Billings: Much to learn from Marsden Point Refinery pipe debacle

Farmland at Ruakaka becomes the site of intense activity as workers try to fix the ruptured pipeline.
Farmland at Ruakaka becomes the site of intense activity as workers try to fix the ruptured pipeline.

Farmland plays host to a great deal of network infrastructure. Powerlines, pipelines and cables snake across the rural landscape, and are largely unrecognised until something goes wrong.

These networks can prove a daily inconvenience to the farmer and, in most cases, are located by statutory right, or easements signed long ago. There's nothing in it for the farm business, but a sense of public duty and obligation will see farmers suck it up.

Federated Farmers puts in a lot of work assisting farmers on access issues and compliance around these networks. It can at times be problematic and intense, but as a general rule if there's respect and transparency on all sides, anything can be managed.

It was with this in mind that we followed the story and aftermath of the Auckland fuel pipe fracture just prior to the general election, that disrupted the travel plans of thousands and caused a certain amount of international embarrassment.

Installed 35 years ago the fuel pipeline runs for 170km between Marsden Point and Wiri, and is the vital single link for jet fuel to Auckland airport. The immediate crisis dismayed many, as the nation pondered how so little could be known about such a vital link and how the fracture allowed to happen.

Much analysis in the aftermath focused on the story of an errant digger driver.

Government and Big Business were also strapped to the whipping post: Government should somehow have foreseen the risk and taken control of the pipe, and big business had once again failed the people for profit through underinvestment.

Most of the commentary missed the essential point; that the reliability of a supply network depends on the strength of its component parts — which includes the land through which it runs, much of it privately owned. Were landowners factored in to the commercial equation related to the pipe? Were there incentives for landowners to be proactive about risks to its security?

If success is measured in unknowns, then the Auckland fuel pipe hasn't done too badly. Since its installation the pipeline hadn't suffered an outage affecting air travel and had quietly done its work, well beneath the public radar. It came as a surprise, for example, to some Aucklanders that the pipeline ran under the roadside next to their properties. They were alerted to it via a brochure issued just after the breakage.

The security and resilience of the pipeline was in fact part of Government's 2012 review of New Zealand's oil security, but little attention overall was given to the relationships on the land.

Refining NZ in its feedback acknowledged the importance of stakeholders to the pipe's protection from encroachment, but mostly focused on protections they had achieved through having the pipeline route designated under the RMA. Indeed, there are limitations on land use activity in the various district plans, but that approach on its own doesn't appear to have been successful.

It is certainly our experience that a network situated on private land benefits a great deal from engaged, informed and respected landowners. Far more can be achieved by way of consideration of the landowner's interests, working with them and offering incentive to monitor, work around and sacrifice the land affected by the network.

The operation of cell towers when compared to the RAP is a useful case in point. Cell towers are generally sited on land leased from the farmer, whereas pipelines are largely protected by statute and council rules — a situation where many farmers see a commercial or service activity from which others benefit, with the landowner as something of an afterthought. At Federated Farmers we deal often with access disputes and other difficulties arising from such situations.

We contend that an enduring and mutually rewarding relationship between the infrastructure owner and the landowner provides better resilience over time than regulation or rules. Perhaps that's the real lesson to be learned from the pipeline failure.

Nigel Billings is a senior policy adviser with Federated Farmers

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