Methanex – 30 Years

Words by  Will Johnston
Kowhai & Thistle Kowhai & Thistle

This year, Methanex celebrates 30 years of operation in Taranaki, as well as across the world. The company has helped shape New Plymouth as a city and continues to be a major influence on the Taranaki economy.

Formed in 1992, the Canadian-based company established its presence in Taranaki by purchasing two plants at Motunui and Waitara Valley, storage tanks in Omata and loading facilities at Port Taranaki in May 1993 from Fletcher Challenge Methanol. 

Methanex produces methanol, an essential ingredient used as a base in hundreds of everyday industrial and consumer items and products for the future. It’s also a cleaner-burning, cost-competitive alternative fuel. Methanol is made using local gas and water through a complex process. 

Globally, Methanex is the largest producer and supplier of methanol to major international markets in North America, Asia Pacific, Europe and South America.

Here in Taranaki, Methanex injects almost $1billion into the local economy, represents almost 10 percent of the region’s economy, employs over 200 highly skilled people with careers and indirectly supports another 3,000 jobs.

It is also a significant player in the region when it comes to lowering emissions and creating a cleaner environment. More and more ships coming to Port Taranaki are now running on methanol and MOVE Logistics (formerly Taranaki freight company Hookers) has announced an investment in a methanol-powered roll-on, roll-off vessel for coastal shipping routes, including between Port Taranaki and Nelson.  

Investments such as this show transportation companies are committed to the decarbonisation of freight and Methanex is helping that journey, says Methanex New Zealand Managing Director Stuart McCall. 

The company has recently made a multi-million-dollar investment to reduce carbon emissions at its Motunui site, which will involve improve the technology in the facility’s distillation columns over the next 12 months. Once completed, this project has the potential to reduce the site’s carbon emissions by over 50,000 tonnes per annum, the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road.

New Plymouth before Motunui and Waitara Valley

Even before Methanex was formed here, the two plants have been part of the Taranaki fabric since they were built in the early 1980s. 

For those old enough to remember, it’s hard to think back to what New Plymouth was like before construction began on Waitara Valley (1981 – 1983) and then Motunui (1982 – 1985) methanol plants.

Retired Senior Vice President of Manufacturing at Methanex, Harvey Weake, said New Plymouth was a quiet provincial town before the construction boom in the early 1980s. 

When he arrived in New Plymouth from Christchurch at the beginning of that decade, he said the Saturday races were one of the most popular events.  

“There was no nightlife, nothing happening after dark, and we thought we would stick to this place for a year or two,” he said.  

But once the Motunui and Waitara Valley sites were being built, Bechtel, the American company in charge of the build, rapidly grew from seven staff working at the top of the TSB Bank building to 2,500-3,000 people – most of them contractors.  

Synfuels was behind the construction. First, the Waitara Valley methanol production facility was built from 1981-1983 and the then-gas to gasoline plant at Motunui between 1982-1985. The two sites were part of the Think Big government strategy, which funded large-scale industrial projects around the country in the petrochemical and energy sectors.  

The two Taranaki projects meant the country could reduce its dependency on international oil supplies and make the most of the Maui gas field discovery. 

At the Motunui site, the farm and chicken sheds were removed to make way for heavy machinery. Man-made landscaping was designed to respect the rural nature of the community.  

Weake said the influx of people came from all over the world including the USA, Spain, Holland, South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Most of the staff brought families with them, causing a swift population growth in the region. 

“It changed New Plymouth from a 1950s rural town to one with a cosmopolitan, international feel. People knew how to party; there were plenty of balls, spreads and parties and the café scene started to pop up.”

From there, New Plymouth kept developing with growth across areas like outdoor recreation and hospitality.  

“It transformed. It was really fun,” Weake said.   

New Plymouth started punching above its weight as a vibrant little city. Weake said it had a different feel to other cities of its size, like Gisborne.  

Several projects started to pop up outside of Think Big, including a water treatment plant to support the growth in population.  

“Infrastructure in New Plymouth, compared to other cities, was in pretty good nick purely because of the energy projects.”  

Weake said many businesses formed to support the oil and gas sector, with some of them still operating today.  

“There was an influx of wealth with a focus on international energy. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the construction of the two sites.” 

Roading projects and a new spectator sport

Large pieces of equipment, shipped over from China, needed to be brought onto the two sites. The 26-kilometre ‘heavy haul route’ from Port Taranaki to Waitara and Motunui, needed to be significantly upgraded. 

Development was completed by the Ministry of Works Department and New Plymouth City Council (now New Plymouth District Council). Changes were made to the city’s northern outlet and State Highway 3 and these were the most visible parts of Think Big leading up to the project.

Without the changes, the road would have suffered extensive damage and some parts of the plant wouldn’t have been able to pass through areas of the route, including between the Fitzroy Shops on Devon Street. 

Changes made to the route remain in use to this day and are a vital part of our local transport network. These include a two-kilometre northern outlet for New Plymouth, now known as Northgate, which extends from New Plymouth Girls’ High School through to the Waiwhakaiho Bridge. A layby site was also built next to the Paynters Avenue bridge for loads that couldn’t fit under the bridge, one of many such sites created within the area. 

Another bypass was created to avoid heavy traffic flowing through Waitara. A four-kilometre stretch was developed, travelling from Nelson Street over a 125-metre bridge, up the hill to Princess Street to link up with the existing road at Bayley Street. 

Four new bridges were built, others strengthened, and the flattening of curves were also part of the development.

Many people still remember those large pre-assemblies rolling through town during the 1980s. At the time, the transportation of plant and equipment was a world-first for the number of heavy loads traveling through an urban area. It became a spectator sport for an 18-month period until mid-1984 as thousands lined the streets to watch them roll through, slowly and meticulously. 

Crowds peaked when an estimated 20,000-plus group turned out for the transport of the then largest load – a 604-tonne methanol vapourisation unit in November 1983. But the unit didn’t hold the record for long, an 800-tonne compressor house soon passed through on a 68-axle trailer, needing several Scammel vehicles to haul the loads with prime movers in place. These had enough power to peel the seal off the roads. 

Between 700-800 loads passed through the route, which also included portacoms for accommodation and backloads.

Gas to gasoline to solely methanol

The Motunui site was originally built to convert gas to gasoline, but over time it moved to just producing methanol.  

Distillation of methanol started after the first tall distillation column was erected in 1994, with the second following in 1995. These are the tallest structures of the plant and can be seen from around the area. The second column won an engineering excellence award that year and at the time was the largest lift in New Zealand history. Both columns were built by Fitzroy Engineering, now known as Dialog Fitzroy, and trucked onsite, repeating the large loads arriving on site seen nearly a decade earlier.  

Distillation is the last part of the methanol-producing process, involving purification through a series of columns. Hydrocarbons and other elements are removed to produce pure methanol. 

Producing distilled methanol and gasoline ran in parallel at Motunui until the gasoline plant was shut down in 1997. 

Weake, who retired in 2016, said the closure was simply down to cost.  

“At the same time, the methanol market boomed, and we were making more money distilling methanol than producing gasoline.”  

The gasoline plant sat dormant until it was deconstructed in 2003 and all its scrap metal was sent to Korea for recycling.  

Plant closures and restarts

It was a turbulent time for Methanex through the early to mid-2000s. Maui’s gas field was downsized, which meant methanol production dropped by nearly 60 percent.  

The Motunui site, including two production trains, was subsequently mothballed in 2003. It resulted in many staff being let go and 80-90 employees were left to operate Waitara Valley, which continued to produce methanol at lowered rates.  

Between 2003 and 2008, gas was only secured on a short-term basis. But with some perseverance, there was enough confidence to underride the restart of one of Motunui’s second plants after securing more gas.  

By 2012, Motunui’s second plant was restarted and Methanex secured gas for another 10 years.  

Weake said a number of people came back to help with the restarts “because they had fond memories of the earlier days at Motunui and just wanted to lend a hand.”  

He said the collaborative approach to restart the plant created a model other regions around the world began to use.  

By 2013, it was the first time in a decade Methanex had a three-plant operation in New Zealand, with Waitara Valley remaining online.  

The future

Methanex New Zealand Managing Director Stuart McCall places great value on the company’s history in Taranaki acknowledging the organisation has been through a rollercoaster ride over the last 30-years. 

“To me, resilience and a positive can-do attitude has got us through that. It’s amazing what we’ve achieved as a team over those 30 years. But it’s also time to look forward,” he said. 

He said the petrochemical industry adds value, contributes to society and serves as a key part of Taranaki and New Zealand. 

The industry has helped Taranaki become New Zealand’s wealthiest province per-capita in a 2020 survey. 

McCall said while the industry has had to adapt to change over time, Methanex has a positive future and will remain a key part of Taranaki’s economy.

With New Zealand’s transition into a low-emissions economy, methanol will be used even more frequently. 

“Methanol goes into everyday products we can’t live without, from clothes, building products and products with the future in mind, like wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles. Methanol serves as an important ingredient for these products, it means Methanex is here for the future too.”

Even though much of the methanol produced is destined for overseas, one of Methanex’s key local customers is AICA New Zealand. AICA has a direct pipeline from Methanex to its Corbett Road site. 

AICA is a leading producer of industrial adhesive resins used in the manufacture of wood products that support New Zealand’s construction industry and are important for building warm, dry homes. AICA also started making biodiesel using Methanex’s methanol. 

McCall is also quick to point out the product is a cleaner-burning fuel, with a large portion of Methanex-owned ships using the product. 

“Every month we have vessels coming into Port Taranaki burning cleaner fuel, by using methanol. That’s one way we contribute today.” 

Maersk, the largest shipping company, and others, are transitioning to methanol-fueled ships. A bit closer to home, national company MOVE Logistics has announced an investment in a methanol-powered roll-on, roll-off vessel for coastal shipping routes, including between Port Taranaki and Nelson.  

McCall said those investments mean transportation companies are committed to the decarbonisation of freight and Methanex is helping that journey. 

Sustainability is at the forefront of McCall’s mind. Methanex keeps global emissions down because of the way it produces methanol.  “If we didn’t make methanol here, it would be produced somewhere offshore, probably using coal, with significantly higher emissions,” he said. 

This means Methanex is already one step ahead of its competitors.

The company has recently made a significant investment to reduce carbon emissions at its Motunui site. 

The multi-million-dollar investment will involve improving the technology in the facility’s distillation columns over the next 12 months. Once completed, this project has the potential to reduce the site’s carbon emissions by over 50,000 tonnes per annum, the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road.

“This new investment demonstrates our commitment to emissions reduction in New Zealand and globally. 

The project has strong backing from Methanex’s Vancouver head office. 

Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Sustainability, Vanessa James, said it aligns with the commitments made in our recent sustainability report. 

“We are proud to invest in emissions reduction technologies such as that at our Motunui plant, and we will continue to explore lower-carbon pathways to producing methanol across all of our global operations,” she said. 

McCall said further initiatives to improve sustainability with a number of environmental, safety and social commitments are a core focus for the New Zealand business and more will be implemented here and around the world. 

Community involvement

Methanex prides itself on supporting the community and environment. McCall said following on from an Energy Excellence Award for strengthening hapū relationships through learning and understanding, Methanex invited four hapū from the area – Manukorihi, Ngāti Rāhiri, Otaraua and Pukerangiora Hapū – to participate in Te Rōpū Rangapū Aronga Tahi (the group of shared vision).

“The collaboration reflects our commitment to upholding the mana of the whenua that Methanex stands upon. We’re working closely with iwi and hapū to embed mātauranga Māori by developing a cultural and environmental monitoring programme for our resource consents and seeking opportunities to enhance our air and water resources,” he said. The work was recognised by winning the Health and Safety Excellence Award at the Taranaki Chamber of Commerce Business Awards in November.

The partnership also means a strong working relationship with NIWA has been formed to improve the fish pass at Methanex’s water intake. 

“This will further protect native fish species in the Waitara River.” 

Methanex also supports several local organisations focusing on health and safety, the environment, education and community development. 

It has recently extended its long-term partnership with the Taranaki Health Foundation supporting a new Methanex Neonatal Unit at Taranaki Base Hospital. The relationship continues from when Methanex’s staff fundraised for an angiography suite. Methanex also sponsors the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter’s life-saving winch, the Methanex Bell Block Aquatic Centre, On The House charity, Huirangi School, Waitara High School, YMCA Youth Services and Waitara East School, among others. 

Staff are also involved in many volunteering activities, including a working bee at the Waipapa Urupā on Otaraoa Road, supporting rangatahi with IT development and helping to tidy the grounds of the SPCA.

“We have a very community-minded team at Methanex and we encourage our staff to get involved and support as much as they can. I really admire the dedication our staff have for the environment and local area,” McCall said. 

While the world is changing fast, Methanex is here for the long haul. From memories of massive production units rolling through the streets of New Plymouth to becoming an essential ingredient in the creation of cleaner energy alternatives, methanol has proven itself to be a versatile and extremely useful chemical and part of the past and future fabric of Taranaki. 

Share this