26 Jul 2021

Unemployment looms as Marsden Pt oil refinery winds down

From Checkpoint, 5:44 pm on 26 July 2021

Northland's jobless rate could be set to skyrocket as one of the region's biggest employers winds down.

Workers at the Marsden Point oil refinery are bracing for hundreds of jobs to go next year when the terminal is expected to move towards imports only.

A shareholder meeting to decide the refinery's fate is being held next Friday.

The government says it is involved with talks to help affected staff, but those workers say they feel forgotten.

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Marsden Point oil refinery Photo: RNZ/Nikki Mandow

Rob Smith has worked at the refinery for 18 years and said the job losses would be brutal for the local economy.

He and about 300 other workers are now in a consultation period, which began on 7 July and runs for three months.

Then he said he would brace for the six-month redundancy period.

"After the refinery actually ceases operation, which is looking like around March next year, aside from the people that will be held for the immediate clean-up, which will be about a two-month period, then we'll be going to the terminal operation, which will be vastly reduced staffing... and the rest will be gone," Smith said.

He said that could become a critical staffing issue, with people leaving in droves.

Smith said people were looking for other options as suggestions the site could be converted to create biofuels, or other greener products, didn't appear to be shaping up.

"This pie-in-the-sky Just Transition, it's just words. There is no transition, there's no plan for biofuels or for any other use for the site. At this stage it's just power-point presentations."

Smith said the government needed to look across the Tasman to Australia, where that government had put much more money and resources into supporting its refineries.

Northland already has the country's highest rates of people on the Jobseekers benefit - 10.5 percent of the working age population, compared to 4.2 percent in the Southern region.

FIRST Union researcher Edward Miller said losing the refinery would be a huge blow.

"Northland has the lowest GDP of any region in the country on a per-capita basis, the refinery counts for around 8 percent of that GDP, so this would be a major impact to an area that is already struggling."

He said closing the refinery may also be terrible for global carbon emissions.

While Miller said it would limit domestic output, closing the refinery would mean that process would need to be done overseas - in countries that often had poorer environmental controls.

"Right now we import more refined oil from South Korea than anywhere else and emissions from some of the South Korean refineries are between 16-38 percent higher in the refining process than what we see at Marsden Point."

First Union is part of the Northland Refinery Transition Group, which is looking at options for the site and for staff. Miller said they had made no progress so far.

"Instead of a Just Transition we're looking at just a transition from a refinery to an import only terminal and there doesn't seem to be plans to put anyone into any alternative employment at all."

But Whangārei MP Emily Henderson, who is also part of that group, was still hopeful.

She said there were opportunities out there, including at Northport.

"If we got a drydock - that's 400 permanent jobs.

"I do think that the options are there for building some really exciting industry that has real jobs and real prospects around what has always been a centre of marine excellence - what could we do there."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was in Northland today and said the government was in talks about the refinery's future.

In a statement, Refining NZ said it hadn't asked for any government support in keeping people employed, but it was getting assistance from the Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment, along with the Ministry for Social Development, as part of the transition.

The import only operation would need about 60 staff - Refining NZ said the earliest transition would be in April next year, and the terminal would remain fully functional until then.