As NZ’s only oil refinery ends operations, some of the figures involved in the Wellington protest are seizing on the closure as the focus for a ‘big occupation’.
After the 23-day occupation of parliament came to an ugly end a month ago, leaders and participants insisted that the battle was not over. As the days wore on, with most mandates removed and, this week, vaccine pass requirements dissolved, the responses have varied. Many – probably most – have moved on. Some returned to Wellington for a promised 14-day long “Unite” protest, which has attracted a few dozen supporters each day since it began last Friday. Others are scheduling “flash mob unmask events” around the country for Sunday.
Some are looking to get elected. Others, such as the best funded and organised of the groups, Voices for Freedom, are increasingly amplifying the more conspiracist edges of their thinking. A recent newsletter from the organisation, which was founded in opposition to the Covid vaccine, announced: “In reality, it’s irrelevant whether you’ve had the jab or not. Now, what matters most, is that we recognise we are all facing the same oppressive future if we do not come together and that the division is there primarily to weaken us.”
But among the biggest flexes in attempting to harness the energies of the occupation is from the groups that are calling for action at Marsden Point. The decommissioning of the oil refinery, which is now operating as an import terminal for fuel that has been refined abroad, has prompted several ringleaders in a protest ostensibly focused on removing vaccine mandates to announce the cause as the movement’s next “mission”. A protest against the closure of what many consider a nationally important strategic asset is one thing. The potential for the use of tactics evidenced at the occupation of parliament is quite another.
‘Dig in at Marsden’
“If you’re a freedom fighter worth his salt, start getting ready to head north.” That was the message from Brad Flutey, a key figure in the Wellington occupation, to more than 4,000 online followers on March 28. Flutey, who was arrested during the occupation and is currently facing charges in Whangārei District relating to a clash with police outside a local bottle shop, unveiled a campaign, complete with logo, for a “Dig in at Marsden” operation. “Secure the oil refinery for our future,” he said.
Flutey is trying to summon numbers for a “big occupation at Marsden oil refinery”. While he says he intends to “keep it lawful”, he has directly compared the event to the parliamentary occupation: “Just look at Wellington. You do your part and we’ll do ours.”
The push has backing from a range of other figures who were instrumental or vocal in the parliament protest, including the far-right QAnon conspiracy theorist Damien De Ment. The New Zealand-based American has issued typically unhinged video rants declaring the closure of the refinery to be evidence of “the intent of the NZ government, its fascist, corporate mob and harem” and part of “a UN agenda which is tantamount to depopulation and fucking genocide. This is war.” Both Flutey and De Ment have promoted their calls to action on Marsden Point on the insurrectionist, conspiracy theory-fuelled online channel Counterspin, where host Kelvyn Alp declared last week that New Zealanders should target “strategic assets” around the country, saying: “You should go there, you should take ’em, take everything back.”
The leader of the Social Credit Party (for which Flutey stood at the last election) has led much of the opposition to the closure of the refinery across the last months. He delivered to parliament in March a petition with 18,000 signatures calling on the government to nationalise the refinery. Leitch spoke to protesters at the occupied parliamentary grounds in February, where he claimed “our sovereignty [is] under attack”, but has previously told The Spinoff that opposition to Covid measures is not a campaigning priority. Flutey says he has been talking to Leitch, but there is nothing to suggest that Leitch supports any proposed occupation.
On Monday, Flutey shared more of his plans for what he again called, directly, the “Marsden Point occupation”. He appealed for legal support to issue an injunction against the refinery operators, but added also this: “People who are willing to come from other areas around the country, we need another convoy.”
Shortly before 10pm last night, Flutey launched a website appealing for donations and support. “We invite all responsible men and women to join us in the safe management of this occupation,” read the front page. The occupation’s “goals” were set out as “stop the destruction, regain ownership, evolve it”. There was a call to those who encamped on parliament grounds: “We hope to see all the individuals that helped keep the occupation of parliament sensible.” As for who was behind the project? “We are a group of farmers and tradies who have accumulated a various array of skills, training, experience and knowledge.”
Police have been “monitoring the potential for protest activity at Marsden Point”, Inspector Martyn Ruth, Whangārei area commander, told The Spinoff yesterday. “At this stage there have not been any protesters on site. Police recognise the public’s right to protest peacefully and lawfully.”
A spokesperson for the former refinery operator, which as of April 1 has changed its name to Channel Infrastructure, said: “We are regularly in touch with local police to ensure that any activity at or around our site is lawful and does not disrupt our operations.”
She added: “We have completed the shutdown of our refinery assets and permanent decommissioning of these assets is under way. The decommissioning of the refinery assets that are not utilised in the fuels import terminal involves cleaning, depressurising and some demolition and other works, to ensure these assets are in a safe state ready for demolition and removal at a future time. Those facilities utilised for the fuels import terminal will not be affected, nor involved in the decommissioning activities.”
The closure and its critics
On April 1, almost exactly 60 years after construction of the facility began, the refining of crude oil at Marsden Point formally came to an end, as the company name Refinery NZ was retired and replaced with “Channel Infrastructure” – a brand that seems designed to dim excitement. The change marked a “significant milestone”, said CEO Naomi James, who looked forward to “a long-term and sustainable future in the face of the most difficult operating environment in our history”.
The decision to close the refinery at Marsden Point has come in for concerted and rigorous criticism since it was announced in the middle of last year, from interest groups, iwi and unions. Concerns have included energy security, the effect on unemployment in the north, where around 250 people have lost their jobs, and the potential environmental impacts. In August last year, the Maritime Union’s Craig Harrison issued a statement warning that “exposing New Zealand further to a highly volatile international situation is reckless”.
Longstanding opponents of the refinery shutdown contacted by The Spinoff yesterday said they were alarmed to see the cause taken up by figures such as De Ment and Flutey, who last made headlines when he posted a telephone call offering advice and support to Richard Sivell in the lead-up to his arrest. Sivell, a believer in the conspiracist “sovereign citizen” movement, was this week charged with threatening to kill the prime minister.
Though reluctant to go on the record for fear of being conflated with protest actions they don’t support, they said the argument for retaining an oil refinery capacity remained strong. The case was underscored by two recent upheavals that have come at us in quick succession: the previously unimaginable supply-line disruptions as the world was faced with a devastating pandemic and the convulsions in global energy markets resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It wasn’t just about keeping cars on the road and planes in the sky; a reliable pipeline of fuel was required for things like food supply. Were diesel to suddenly become unavailable, it could be only weeks before food transport around the country became hobbled.
While it is true that almost every drop of oil refined at Marsden Point had itself been imported, the storage of crude oil had the effect of creating another link in the domestic chain and therefore a bigger buffer. And another thing: yes, the oil drilled off Taranaki has not been going to Marsden – its lower sulphur content means it gets sent to Australia – but in the event of an emergency the plant could have been reconfigured to deal with the sweet stuff.
All of these arguments have played out in a busy 18 months or so since Marsden Point operators Refining NZ, whose owners are a line-up of the names illuminated on signs above petrol stations around the country, announced their plan to move to an import-only model. As recently as 2020, its bosses were signalling a decades-long future refining crude oil. Then the market went something close to belly up, and from the point of view of the shareholders the economic arguments were overwhelming.
But what of the strategic arguments – the arguments around fuel security and national security?
In a September 2021 cabinet paper, the minister for energy and resources, Megan Woods, wrote: “The closure of the refinery is expected to have little impact on fuel supply resilience under most disruption scenarios, but it could reduce New Zealand’s resilience to a low-likelihood-but-high-consequence event that leaves New Zealand with no ability to import fuels.” She ruled out going down the road of subsidies, but offered cabinet the option of opening discussions with Refining NZ “to ensure the refinery continues operating for a period of time – perhaps five or 10 years – by limiting its exposure to volatile earnings”, in the form of a loan or underwrite facility.
That didn’t transpire. It was a marked contrast with the approach across the Tasman. In the face of refinery closures, their government last year launched a subsidy scheme to “lock in Australia’s fuel security”. On issuing the first payment in February, energy minister Angus Taylor said: “Our comprehensive fuel security package will ensure we are prepared for any emergency, see an increase in our onshore diesel stockholdings and lock in jobs of our fuel-dependent industries, such as our truckies, farmers, miners and tradies.”
The New Zealand government was not indifferent to the need to ensure a sufficient supply, however. Woods committed in the cabinet paper “to progress options to ensure New Zealand has adequate fuel stocks in-country to offset any fuel import risk”. A consultation on how to do that is currently being undertaken by MBIE. The process has been accelerated, Woods told The Spinoff yesterday, in response to global events.
“Given the current global oil situation, I have requested officials report back to me faster than originally planned, so cabinet can make a decision on options in the next couple of months,” she said. “In terms of the Ukraine-Russia conflict’s impact on physical supplies of fuels to New Zealand, the information we have from the International Energy Agency and fuel companies is that there is no expected impact; New Zealand no longer purchases any oil or oil products from Russia and we last imported crude oil from Russia in January 2021. The major sources of New Zealand’s fuel imports come from refineries in Singapore, South Korea and Japan.”
She added: “We are involved in endeavours to manage price volatility in the market through our membership of the International Energy Agency. The IEA is required to hold stocks equivalent to at least 90 days of net oil and imports. As part of this obligation New Zealand buys emergency reserve stocks that are held offshore that can be released to help manage potential disruptions in the oil market. In March, as part of a collective action by the IEA in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, New Zealand released 369,000 barrels of oil stocks. On Saturday, New Zealand agreed to release more of its emergency oil stocks as part of additional action by the IEA – with the size of this collective stock release, and New Zealand’s contribution, being worked through.”
For its part, Channel Infrastructure and its shareholders say they are alert to the importance of a safety net in the form of a good domestic store of fuel. In the days ahead, the company says, it will publish its first “sustainability report”, to detail how it will “contribute to New Zealand’s energy transition in the years ahead”.
A spokesperson for Channel Infrastructure told The Spinoff: “The decision to shift our operations to the import terminal model was made following an extensive and public 18-month strategic review. Through this process, we consulted widely and looked at a range of options for the future operations of our business. We have been in regular contact with the government since commencing the Strategic Review in April 2020, sought their input through the process and kept them completely up-to-date on our planning towards a transition.”