The Herald on Saturday ran a big feature on the role of oil in the NZ economy:

Pain at pump offset by $2bn exports

The reason for this is the publication by Edison Investment Research of the first ever New Zealand Petroleum Sector Yearbook [Commissioned by whom? The government?]. The general tone of the article is reassuring or even exciting for anyone who might be concerned about the cost of filling their gas tank- with much of the emphasis going on the fact that NZ has been recently exporting around $2billion worth of oil products a year, certainly I got the impression from the report that things are booming in the NZ oil patch. So I thought I’d have a closer look at the numbers:

NZ OIL 1974-2011

Helpfully the Ministry of Economic Development has quite a lot of data on their website. The volumes are Thousands of Tonnes and seem to include every form of petroleum product; all liquids and even LPG. [Note; It isn’t clear whether they are straight volumes or in ‘oil equivalent’ volumes, as different products have different densities and therefore value.]

Lots of interest here. Yes we have been exporting between 1-3mt per year since the mid 1980s, pretty much everything we can produce. And there has been local production since the mid 70s, around the time of the OPEC oil shock. So clearly a fair bit of work has been going on for quite a long time in the hunt for oil in NZ. And output has wobbled about a bit but this is not the most important issue visible in the chart above. The most important point is that these are not net exports; we import way more than either we used to or than we have ever produced. Its that pink line that really matters. We are a member of that most vulnerable of clubs: Net Oil Importing Nations.

The Herald article reports it thus:

The yearbook finds that in 2004 exports from petroleum sales totalled $502 million but by 2008 this had surged five-fold to $2.63 billion.

Good news! By selecting one of the weaker years, both in volume produced and oil price, and comparing it to the highest ever it can look like we’re on to an on going winner. Ok so the purpose of the report is to talk up the prospects of the industry and to persuade us that finding more oil is the best answer to our concerns about our dependence on this increasingly expensive substance. The article does go on to concede that even if much much more was produced here that wouldn’t lead to cheaper fuel -in contradiction of its own headline:

In the local market the upstream exploration and production sector has very little bearing on the downstream market for petrol, Edison analyst John Kidd says.

Actually the the real case is not ‘very little‘ but rather ‘none whatsoever‘; we’ll be paying the market price however much is produced here, especially as we won’t even own it. Regardless, the general tone here is all very bullish- don’t worry it’s all going to be great, that’s certainly the vibe for those only skimming the news. Yet it is clear that what has driven the fluctuations in the production numbers over the last almost 40 years is the geological reality in the field: the first production peak of 1997 reflects the highest ever flow rate of the Maui field which then immediately went into decline. The slightly higher 2008 peak is a result of the Pohokura and Tui fields at or near their highs. And since then these [and other minor sources] have been joined by Maari and Kupe fields. Already all of these fields are producing at a lower rate just a couple of years into their lives [the 2012 figures are lower still]. Saudia Arabia it is not.

Yes but any amount of oil is worth pumping out because the stuff is so valuable. You bet. Though of course those high prices also hold for those 7mt we are importing as well. Looking at that chart with the nation’s general wealth and balance of payments in mind we can all be grateful that the rate of growth in imports of the 1990s didn’t continue until now because then we’ed be importing- and trying to pay for- around 9mt per annum. And because we export everything we find [Marsden Pt refinery can’t use the local stuff- although IIRC that will change] the level of imports flattening off is not a result of finding more locally and pulling it out of the ground, but because we have not been burning it quite so wantonly since those price rises really started hurting around 2005.

It takes a huge amount of work, expertise, and investment to find this oil, and while the government does receive royalties and locals get good jobs along the way much of the value heads off overseas to the foreign investors in the local oil industry [hitting us in the ‘Invisibles’ account, not mentioned in the Herald article]. So while every barrel of local oil does help to offset the ones we import it is not a straight swap in value. We still have to use a huge amount of our precious export returns to pay for this stuff; and it ain’t getting cheaper. That’s a lot of milk.

So what do we do with all this black gold and where could we best put effort into trying to reduce our dependence on the stuff? Here’s where it goes:

Cherry Pie: Another interesting chart. International transport is basically 3/4 Aviation fuel and 1/4 Shipping Fuel Oil. Non-Energy Use is stuff like bitumen, lubricants, and solvents. Very surprised and encouraged that Ag, Forestry, and Fishing is only 6%. There are some other bits and pieces, but wonderfully we don’t burn much of this valuable commodity to heat our homes or make electricity any more [we largely got off that after the little warning provided by the OPEC squeeze of the 70s]. So clearly Domestic Transport is the area that you would target if looking for savings in the oil import bill, so what’s going on here?:

Ok so flying and shipping aren’t the issue here. I think it is pretty clear where this is heading: We’ve struck oil! 9/10 of 2/3 of all that oil we import is all used in cars trucks and trains to move us and our stuff around on land. Not down on the farm, not at sea or in the air, but on our roads and rails. Or 4.3 mt of the 7mt.

Effort and attention to lower this figure while still improving our connectivity is surely as important as looking for new supplies. Yet this idea seems to be considered impossible by the government, if they think of it at all. It’s just not as sexy as ‘Drill Baby, Drill’. And nor does it have a multi-billion dollar industry and well funded lobbyists fighting for it. Indeed it isn’t easy as the structures that we built up in the age of the steep increase in imports in the first chart above, when oil hit the low of 10 bucks a barrel, mean we have little choice or flexibility in how we move things and people.

Well here’s one thing we should do immediately, because we are no longer in the age of cheap oil and likely never will be again, and therefore need to change our ways to face this new reality:

When making decisions around investment in new transport projects the analyses should include calculations of whether or not they help us to significantly change our lives and businesses in ways that reduce our dependence on imported oil. So clearly this would privilege all forms of electric propulsion, but also the much more efficient rail and sea freight over truck freight. As well of course urban, provincial, and intercity public transport. But especially active and electric urban modes where there is growing demand and a high number of, frankly, low value car journeys that could easily be substituted if appealing alternatives were more available.

Individuals and individual businesses have been doing what they can to reduce their exposure to the increasing cost of road travel; we can see this not only in the flattening off of the import line above but also in the flat-lining of the kilometres travelled on our roads since around 2005. A date that precedes the global financial crash but not the start of the steep increase in oil price. But this isn’t enough, individuals and businesses cannot do much more by themselves. They need options to allow them to make the changes that they clearly want to be able to do.

It seems that there is an idea that has a hold in the minds of many who have mostly lived through the age of ever increasing vehicle growth and fuel use that it is in some way causally linked to economic success. But research shows here that is no longer true. In fact the reverse is almost certainly the case now, as we continue our dependence on this increasing expensive input we put our competitiveness further at risk.

The challenge is to grow the economy while reducing our exposure to this input. And if anywhere can New Zealand can; we have a fantastic renewable electricity resource, the sea freight we so rely on for export is a relatively modest user of hydrocarbons, as is the primary production sector, and we have already arrested the growth in waste so now it is time to really turn that pink line in the first chart around. The first step is to let go of the lazy and out of date assumption that nothing can be done, that hydrocarbon use is, as Mr Brownlee says; ‘inelastic’.

Well it will certainly remain fairly inelastic while there is no policy to address this in land transport. The charts above clearly show this where the opportunity lies. The national significance of spending $12 billion on new duplicate highways is increased dependence on oil imports, while at the same time letting a huge opportunity to invest in a better and freer future slip by. Tragic.

I am not calling for us to stop looking for oil, but I am calling for an active effort to reorient our infrastructure away from inefficient and inflexible oil dependence with just as much vigour; the results will almost certainly be quicker, more significant, and longer lasting. We just have to stop thinking like it is still last century on energy and land transport matters. Governments love to talk about innovation, but it is no good just wishing for miracle new technologies while investing in yesterday’s world; there are fresh things we could start doing today, like these Smart policies for example.

Because after all just how valuable that oil we do find is depends on how much we are using ourselves. It’s the net figure that really matters.

POST SCRIPT: Here is a link to the current government’s Petroleum Action Plan. Precisely one half of the problem, looking for more; not thinking anything about how to use less.

Here is a more sophisticated view of the world we are now in:

‘A paradigmatic shift in global energy usage is underway that has finally become more well-defined, and more visible.’

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  1. Great post. I get really tied of the “gee whiz”, NZ is on the way to self sufficiency stories, when clearly we import all of our oil. At least this article made that clear. The Herald graphic that accompanied this article claimed we consumed 10 times more diesel than petrol in 2011. Is that correct?

  2. Well if you’re talking about land transport, my subject above, MED has these figures for 2011

    Petrol 2.277 mt
    Diesel 1.746 mt

    Obviously the farm and industrial sectors use more diesel than petrol but if the claim about diesel is to make some argument about truck freight then not even the above numbers reflect that as clearly there are light diesel vehicles in increasing numbers. It also isn’t clear where Kiwi Rail’s consumption is included- I have assumed under ‘Land Transport’.

    So nowhere near 10x.

    Additionally when it comes to energy independence [a theme of much bullshit from the right in the US too] NZ does have a fantastic news story- electricity.
    That’s is our thing, why any government would be fiddling about with how the ownership of this sector is structured rather than working to spread its value into the transport sector is beyond me. They must have rocks in their heads. I think it is an outcome of focussing on the financial and not the economic: They care more about who has the wealth than how much there is in total.

    1. You would think that even if it was only in the short-term interest of making the electricity companies look like even more of a steal than they already are for ‘investors’, that the government would be boosting the prospects of a potential major consumer/customer namely PT operators with fleets of electric trains and buses. Maybe they’re banking on electric cars.

      1. Yes they are ‘banking’ on electric cars, but only if you can make them think about the future at all in a sensible way. They are basically Ignorists of both climate change and peak oil, cleverer really than being deniers… they just don’t ever mention these looming problems, when pressed they then make vague and hand-wavey mumbles about technological breakthroughs and electric cars.

        It is not obvious how we could easily transition anything other than the very top end of our vehicle fleet to electric drive. The capital cost is crushing. So we really are probably heading for a country of fantastically broad and sweeping highways with a tiny number of very expensive electric of hybrid Lexus’ and BMW’s silently gliding along unhinded by much else…. people on bikes?

        There are more than a few problems with the car future, but the subtext of reports and articles referred to above is to undermine any such discussion by trying to show that Business As Usual faces no new issues. These articles will get more and more shrill and insistent as this decade unfolds.

        This guy is way way better at math than me and unpacks the problems at detail, recommend:

        Electric cars:

        Car Efficiency:

        Peak Oil:

        1. I wouldn’t be pressing into the government with climate change, I really don’t doubt them for being deniers of this, I myself don’t see climate change a big issue due to CO2. I might actually be doing a post shortly on my blog on why climate change is nonsense. My problem is with the health effects of pollution, oil cost (including peak oil).

          With Electric cars the technology is getting better and better, electric cars will out perform gas models in certain areas, and are much better for creating a cleaner city. Are these the future, well I see them playing a sort term private vehicle transport future, however I think other technologies, including one I’m starting to follow has even more potential in this area. Sea Water is a big resource that can be used…however the technology has only started to be implemented and is a long way off.

        2. “It is not obvious how we could easily transition anything other than the very top end of our vehicle fleet to electric drive. The capital cost is crushing. So we really are probably heading for a country of fantastically broad and sweeping highways with a tiny number of very expensive electric of hybrid Lexus’ and BMW’s silently gliding along unhinded by much else…. people on bikes?”

          Exactly. The rich and the well off will have electric cars, businesses will have natgas or electric vans and utility vehicles and the rest … walk, cycle or PT. Long-distance travel by boat might make a comeback if the air industry falls on hard times. I have no clue when this will happen but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be within my lifetime.

          I’m pretty sure the electric bikes will be a huge hit in dense urban areas, especially cargo bikes. We could charge those with personal PV panels quite easily.

    2. That’s is our thing, why any government would be fiddling about with how the ownership of this sector is structured rather than working to spread its value into the transport sector is beyond me.

      The government is working to make it so that private individuals will still be able to make a profit from the transport sector rather than the government. That’s National’s and Act’s reason for existence – to channel wealth to the private sector which will all be foreign multi-national conglomerates.

  3. Regardless of whatever Brownlee – or the Government of the day says or thinks.
    The only thing that will be shown to be inelastic when oil prices inevitably go through the roof is the oil noose around our necks if we don’t take steps to seriously kick this oil habit longer term.

    1. Greg N do have inside knowledge? Have a post on the supposed “inelasticity” of travel demands going up in the next day or so … 🙂

  4. Great article, Patrick. love your style! The simple argument that most people grasp is that we are paying the highest ever pump prices and we are langusihing along the bottom of the economic cycle. Wait for things to heat up a little and watch that pump price soar so you’d better buy your low consumption car now while demand is low and they are cheap because that wont last and nobody will want your Remuera tractor as a trade-in in a few years time (especially if it’s a diesel because that price will grow faster than petrol). Under this scenario I foresee public sentiment turning rapidly and vitriole being poured on the government for ‘not warning us’. Bye-bye Brownlee!

  5. A fantastic post Patrick. Would it be possible to send it to every MP and to all media in the hope that the more enlightened MP’s will take it on board and that some media will either publish it or at least give it air time.

  6. There is still value in pursuing our oil reserves for monetary gain, there is no doubt that although our imports are much much higher, that ever little bit helps when offsetting the cost. As has been mentioned, we need to be prioritising our oil consumption. Private Vehicles which have an average ridership of 1.2 people is not a efficient use of this resource. Using other means of energy would be the most effective way of reducing our reliance on imports. Because this is a major use of oil in NZ, it is definitely an area we need to target.

    We still need to make use of the resources we have in terms of our economy, if we import less, export more and rely on alternative form of energy to get around. We would be in a better economic situation.

    However it’s hard to change the mind set of politicians who only know one form of transport, and only one way to power that form. It’s a mind set that is changing with the younger generation. Time for older generations to jump on board. Yes I’m calling Mr Brownlee old, if not in age, at least in mindset.

  7. i would like to mention the fact that cars have very low thermal efficiency, expecially in Nz where there’s very little control on emissions and the cars are 5-10 years behind the european standards, in general.
    More stringent policies on road worthiness and emission control would significantly diminish the consumption of oil and the amount of cancers, that I think is a good thing, isn’t it?

  8. Great post Patrick; very clear that what we need is a CRL (and a commitment to rebuild and reopen the Wairoa – Gisborne line).

  9. What we need is less dreaming and more realism from the government: An action plan to rely more on what we’ve got, electricity, and less on what we don’t, oil.

    Which would certainly include both those projects.

    1. Could be a glut of electricity on the market if Rio Tinto decide to shut down Tiwai Point. Put that spare power into an expansion of electrified rail in the Auckland / Waikato / Bay of Plenty regions – only with a change of government mind…

  10. It would be nice to have some sort of post or link to a study on what a post liquid fuels economy might look like. I would suggest steam will make a comeback, along with coastal shipping first then shipping later. Import substitution will again bee economic at both a national and regional level. I think the biggest transformation would be the decline of the bigger cities in favour of a decentralised “import substitution” economy. Gone will be big centralised distribution nodes, back will be local brewers, soft-drink makers, bakers, all those small town services that vanished in the 1970s and 1980s, along with the jobs that went with them.

    1. Good idea Sanctuary. Suggest the entertaining $20 A Gallon, by Christopher Steiner. Every chapter documents how our lives will change as gas gets more expensive. I think we are at the chapter between everyone moving back to the cities and the airline industry collapsing.

    2. From yesterday’s ANZ Market Focus report:
      “The high NZ dollar is a major irritant for the export sector, but it is also shielding the economy from adverse cost shocks. USD oil prices have risen by close to 25 percent since late June, and while domestic petrol prices have climbed more than 23 c/l since early July, the level of petrol prices (all else equal) would be significantly higher with a lower NZD. We estimate prices for unleaded 91 would be over the $2.65/litre mark if the NZD/USD was 60 cents or around $3/litre with a 50 US cent NZD.”

      Ready for $3/l petrol?

      1. This is why there is way more complacency here [and Aus] than elsewhere in the OECD. But it could change real fast; it just needs either or both of oil heading up and NZD going down. Then get ready for heaps of interviews with the PM expressing shock and surprise, while of course still being relaxed, and claiming that no one could have expected it. It will be called a ‘shock’…. but it shouldn’t.

  11. Brownlee says “New Zealanders love their cars”. But Wellington proves a different point, that when an attractive PT service is provided, Kiwis love their PT. The city has a higher per capita PT use than in any other mid-size city in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. I’d love to see Julie make this point to Brownlee in parliament.

    The “love their cars argument only holds when the PT options are slow, infrequent, expensive and unreliable.

    1. We may well love our cars with an unyielding passion but if filling them with gas is making us poor we may grow to love them even more as immobile sculptures. Though we’ll be needing an alternative or two….

  12. A couple of points:
    1. Marsden Pt can take local nz oil, and has done in the past (I can think of at least one shipment). As I understand it our oil is generally sweet whereas marsden pt prefers the heavy crude because they want to take out things like bitumen, etc which aren’t as present in sweet crude.
    2. A govt should be looking strategically at both sides of the ledger, not only how to get more exports, but how to reduce imports. NZ’s two biggest expenses as a nation are Oil and Bank Profits going overseas. If we could reduce the amount of oil imported by 10% this would be worth a lot. Think Big! Bring back labours compulsory ethanol blended gasoline.
    3. Agriculture uses lots of oil for fertilizer, but its taken from natural gas not oil so your graph may not show the true picture.
    4. One advantage of more local oil production is not cheaper oil (oil will always be an international price no matter how much we produce), but cheaper natural gas. NZ doesn’t have the facilities to import/export natural gas so we do not follow the international price. Indeed the wholesale price of natural gas in NZ has fallen dramatically over the last 5 years. CNG cars anyone?

    1. 1. Marsden Pt is being upgraded and IIRC that will mean more flexibility around the inputs it can accept. This is a very good thing IMHO for resilience against future oil shocks- not hard to picture scenarios where we may need to rely on all that we’ve got.

      2. The very point of the post.

      3. Is the Methanex plant operating again?

      4. CNG for vehicles may well return because of this trapped resource and the price spread…

    2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but by the natural gas for fertilisers you refer to I assume you mean the methane used to make hydrogen, that is then combined with nitrogen from air in the haber process to form ammonia, which is then used to make fertilisers. If what is really needed for fertilisers is hydrogen, then in a peak oil future couldn’t this hydrogen instead be obtained via the electrolysis of water? Although expensive, this I assume would be relatively easy to do on a large international scale, especially if hydrogen fuel cell powered cars are to become more popular the future. Fertilisers are also made from sulphuric acid (from sulphur), so I assume the industry could also substitute in more H2SO4 made ones for ammonia made ones if the NH3 ones become too expensive.

        1. I was thinking nuclear.

          – Clean
          – Efficient on a large scale
          – Well proven

          Of course there are risks, but plenty already exist around the world.

          With cars it is not so clear as storing the electricity is difficult, and the capital costs of ‘electrification’ massive, but the hydrogen plant doesn’t need to be mobile, so I thought it was an easy win for these industry’s in a worst case peak oil situation.

        2. No need in NZ, and no chance either, thankfully. Simply the most expensive way to make power unless you just forget to cost insurance, waste disposal, and decommissioning. … Oh wait: That’s just what they do!

          NZ has the most productive onshore wind farms in the world, unsubsidised. An expanding geothermal resource. A backbone of base load Hydro that balances well with wind. But that’s just the beginning: The future is distributed micro. That is you and me all generating micro quantities, particularly solar. This will require a more sophisticated grid and a less monumental mega generating mindset. But balanced with our existing renewable generation and increased user efficiency is the way to an increasingly electrified and digital future.

          And if we work towards it; increasing freedom from our ‘inelastic’ dependence on imported energy.

  13. From what I understand on the subject, we produce a very good quality light sweet crude which is exported because it has a strong value. Developed european countrues such as the UK use this type of oil in petrol for their vehicles. In turn they get much better vehicle performance and efficiency results. (Probably better emmissions as well but would need verifying).

    We on the other hand, export our high quality product and import heavier crude oil from middle Eastern countries (Saudi) whuch is lower cost but results in lower vehicle performance and efficiency and blackens the heck out of our motors (just ask a mechanic).

    I bought my car back with me from the UK and definitely noticed the difference in petrol. Gull used to provide a better product because they use petrol from Singapore much as the aussies do. So NZ is one of the only countries around that uses the heavier crude for petrol.

    The oil companies who all own the refinery won’t use the lighter crude that we produce or import it because it is much cheaper to import lower quality oil product and add some chemicals in to bring it up to spec.

    Unlike other countries NZ gets the short straw once again. Thank goodness we have the trains.

  14. The recent BBC documentary Playing God on YouTube from the 26 minute mark might just change your mind about fuel for the future.

  15. Great post and nice discussion. I am an avid supporter of electric vehicles in the right context. They are most suitable in countries with warmer climates,but not too warm. The reason is that combustion engines produce heat as waste energy which powers the heater in the car in cold countries. The electric motor needs to use limited battery power for a heater so it really doesnt make sense for most of the south island for half the year unless you want terrible mileage.

    Having said that, I think NZ has great potential to have a large electric fleet of vehicles. I suspect the future of electric vehicles will rest in companies selling the vehicles WITHOUT the batteries and then leasing the batteries at a lower cost. This will mean cars are cheaper to buy, but more expensive to maintain, but probably no more than having a petrol car. One main advantage is a huge renewable energy market. We will all recharge our vehicles during the night when power prices are lowest and our hyrdo/wind farms are running anyway regardless of demand (hyrdo has to) If we wanted to get fancy in the long term, our battery fleet could sell back a small amount of power during the day at peak times(and at a higher price than we paid during the night).

    I also agree that micro-generation should have a greater importance.

    Nuclear power, in an active earthquake/volcanic zone??!?! That’s plain nuts.

    1. Maybe maybe on the electric car in NZ, I’m a little less bullish about this now, except as I say above at the top end. I always thought a big enough fleet of E-cars charging at night offers an interesting and useful quantity of user funded distributed electricity storage, especially for wind power, but we will have to see the capital and battery costs come down significantly. And length of battery life performance go up. Am not nearly as obsessed with range issues as petrol head motoring writers are; most drivers don’t go anywhere near the distances that they seem to insist on. Anyway they’ll be the last to get it.

      Of course we have a huge impetus to try to make it work: vast [and ever growing!] sunk costs in the auto-highway complex. And all those renewable electrons we already make and the many more we could add, so who knows perhaps i’m having an imagination failure….? And the habit of driving and spending too much on depreciating shinny metal: they are the closest idea we have to changing but not really, which I don’t believe will be possible- over even desirable once we get going.

      So there’s this which will encourage you Ari:

      And this not so much:

  16. This is a reasonable companion article to this post. The author looks at where oil is produced and used throughout the world and comes to an interesting conclusion:

    The oil supply for The Rest is defined by the declining global production curve and the rising internal demand of exporters and the Top Ten importers. This ‘triangle of hope’ in the top left corner of the chart, terminates (and I use the word advisedly!) in about 2016, five years from today.

    NZ’s oil imports is in that ‘triangle of hope’ which means that, in a few years, our oil imports will be going down fast and there will be nothing we can do about it. Knowing this, and I’m sure that the government does I really don’t think that they can be that ignorant, they still build roads despite the fact that they will be less than useless in a few years instead of building up the infrastructure that we will need to maintain even the modest economy that we have now. The result will be a massive decline in living standards.

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