NZ military called in after oil pipeline leak hits air travel

Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific planes on the tarmac at Auckland Airport on June 25, 2017.
Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific planes on the tarmac at Auckland Airport on June 25, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON • New Zealand called in its defence force yester- day to help move fuel around the country after a burst pipeline triggered a jet fuel shortage, causing dozens of flight cancellations and disrupting the plans of thousands of airline passengers.

Air New Zealand said it had cancelled four flights to Australia and 14 domestic flights after jet fuel supplies were cut by 70 per cent. Meanwhile, the pipeline damage also raised fears of a fuel shortage for motorists in New Zealand's biggest city, Reuters reported.

The disruption was expected to last for up to a fortnight, and airlines said they would look at refuelling in other cities domestically, or at Pacific and Australian airports to ensure long-haul services could continue.

As well as Air New Zealand, Qantas, Virgin Australia Holdings, Cathay Pacific and Emirates said on their websites that some flights had been affected, Reuters said.

Singapore Airlines said that due to the jet fuel shortage in Auckland, Flight SQ286 will need to stop in Sydney to refuel tomorrow and on Thursday.

The flight was due to arrive in Singapore at 7pm, but is now expected to land at 8.10pm on both days with the Sydney stopover. Customers who miss connecting flights will be re-booked on the next available one from Singapore, said the airline.

The Straits Times understands that the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) training in New Zealand may be affected as well, in a bid to save fuel.

On Aug 22, the RSAF said in a Facebook post that its deployment to Ohakea for flying training would involve around 110 personnel, and this would take place from Aug 28 to Sept 27. It is unclear if the RSAF will be continuing their training for now.

The supply cut followed a leak in a pipeline owned by New Zealand Refining. The pipeline was closed for repairs and expected to return to 70 per cent capacity by Sept 24 to 26, a spokesman said.

The 168km pipeline - which carries jet fuel, petrol and diesel directly from the oil refinery at Marsden Point in Northland to tanks in Wiri, south Auckland - has been out of action since last Thursday afternoon after it was damaged, apparently by a digger, news site stuff.co.nz reported yesterday.

The New Zealand government, which faces an election on Saturday, came under pressure to intervene amid concerns of a shortage of motor fuel.

"The government will commit whatever resources and effort are required to get this sorted out as quickly as possible with a minimum of disruption," Energy and Resources Minister Judith Collins said in a statement, Reuters reported.

To free up industry to focus on the airport, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) would supply a naval tanker to move diesel fuel from the refinery at Marsden Point, about 140km from Auckland, to other parts of the country, she said.

NZDF would also provide 20 more tanker drivers and look at options to let some commuter aircraft refuel at an air force base, Reuters said.

Ms Collins said she had been advised that fuel supplies were currently sufficient for motorists in Auckland.

Prime Minister Bill English earlier noted that the pipeline was privately owned, and urged the parties involved to look at contingency plans to stop such incidents in the future. "They need to go back and look at (the idea of) the second pipeline. The other alternative that they have been examining more recently, I understand, is significantly greater storage at the airport."

• Additional reporting by Seow Bei Yi and Adrian Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'NZ military called in after oil pipeline leak hits air travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe