Aotearoa’s Fracking Capital

New Short Film by AUT Alumni Goes on the Ground in Taranaki to Decipher Our Climate Emergency


By Justin Hu (he/him)

In 2018, in response to the growing climate crisis, the then-newly elected Labour-led government banned oil and gas exploration – but with one key exception: Taranaki.


The province has long been the capital of New Zealand’s oil and gas exploration, yet permits continue to be granted for onshore exploration in the region, despite the government also declaring a climate emergency last year.


For that reason, it’s exactly where activist-filmmaker and AUT alumni Ethan Alderson-Hughes has gone to capture the reality behind Aotearoa’s declaration of a climate emergency.


A Fracking Tour of Taranaki is the filmmaker’s newest project that exhibits the extent of the area’s continued onshore exploration and efforts of local environmental activists.


Graduating from AUT in 2017, Alderson-Hughes studied a Bachelor of Communications, majoring in Television and Screen Production. His past films include Kaitiaki, which was an observational look at the Ihumātao protest and land occupation in 2019.


In an interview with Debate, he says the spark for his latest film came from a chance encounter with a former lecturer.


“An ex-lecturer of mine, Thomas Owen – we met up after the first lockdown and had a big catch up. He was telling me about this tour that he did several years back of the well sites in Taranaki and I just thought that was really interesting.


“I was particularly ignorant about it as well, like I had no idea that Taranaki was essentially the capital of oil and gas production in this country,” he said.


After becoming curious about the topic, the filmmaker says he reached out to Sarah Roberts, spokesperson for Taranaki Energy Watch, a grassroots advocacy group that is running tours in the region. “


Her breadth of knowledge on the topic and her real fiery energy around fighting the industry was something that attracted me to the project.


Because, in general, when someone’s passionate like that, you want to follow them and listen to them more and learn more from them,” Alderson-Hughes says.


According to the filmmaker, Roberts was motivated to become an activist after she felt contractually misled by fracking expansion on her family farm, which she said also affected her health.


In the film, the high school teacher acts as the audience’s tour guide and primary diegetic narrator as she drives around various fracking sites in Taranaki. The audience is introduced to activists, including local iwi and Climate Justice Taranaki, who have resisted the industry.


Opening on a short archival excerpt of former prime minister Robert Muldoon describing his “Think Big” projects in the 1970s and 1980s, the film tries to trace the lineage of where the industry’s roots first sprouted.


One of the things that Alderson-Hughes said fascinated him was the lack of knowledge about the scale of fracking operations in the area.


With a week of filming happening in Taranaki, the filmmaker says some residents they met weren’t even aware that fossil fuel exploration was happening in their town.


“It was enough for me to be like, wow, we really don’t know. Whether or not that’s intentional by the industry, we never really got that answer, but it was pretty interesting that some of these communities had no idea what those fiery things in the sky at night were."


Alderson-Hughes says that the opinions of Taranakians who knew about the industry were broadly “eclectic”.


“We met heaps of people – when you have a camera running around, people are gonna come up and ask you what you’re doing, especially when you’re a bunch of Aucklanders in Taranaki.”


He said they met a wide spectrum of people with differing views on fracking and oil exploration in the region.


“You had people who work in the industry and so they’re certainly more defensive about it. You’ve got people who, their whānau are part of the industry, but that they’re very anti and that creates tension within families and communities.”


“We encountered one chap who greeted us at the gate, while we were filming, and he was working on one of the sites and we had a great conversation with him about how he’s eager to move to renewables. He’s ready for that transition and he wants that transition to happen. That was a very interesting conversation.”


The film is part of series five of Someday Stories which is a yearly cut of short films from emerging filmmakers that “inspire, challenge, uplift, and question”.


As part of the programme, AUT lecturer and filmmaker Jim Marbrook served as an industry mentor for the film. Alderson-Hughes says he previewed edits of the film with him and he was invaluable in the post-production stages of the production.


The filmmaker said he was still thinking about his next project, but that it would again be based around the environment, specifically New Zealand’s native bees.


“It’s still very early days, but I want to look at ngaro huruhuru, our native bees. Most Kiwis know about the bumblebee, but we actually have 28 native bee species. The population is in decline and we don’t really know much about them.”


A Fracking Tour of Taranaki was released on September 20th. The short film is streaming now on RNZ, Stuff, and Māori Television on Demand.