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How they turn oil into milk

Farmer Alistair Geary raises a glass of milk fresh from the vat on his South Taranaki farm.

He pours some into the cat's dish too and she laps it up eagerly before he follows suit and downs the glass.

Mr Geary's drink is designed to illustrate the safety of his milk, despite it being taken from cows grazing on pasture where waste from the drilling of oil and gas wells has been spread.

There are now more than a dozen so-called landfarms in Taranaki. While the authorities say the practice is safe and does not have an environmental effect, they themselves admit there is limited information to inform their decisions.

Critics say there are dangers and not enough research has been carried out to prove otherwise.

Some critics even claim the landfarms may contain so many toxins in the soil that it could have an effect on the milk produced by cows that graze on the grass.

A decade ago, milk was not a product of Mr Geary's farm.

Most of the land was wind-scoured, sandy hillocks backing onto a remote cliffed coastline.

In 2001, Mr Geary volunteered about 30 hectares of his farm to be landfarmed, a process whereby drilling wastes from oil and gas exploration are treated by being spread on to land.

He calls it a win-win situation.

"They get rid of their drilling matter and I get a flat paddock - no money changes hands."

The land off Geary Rd, Manutahi, was previously a dairy farming nightmare - unstable sand hills blanketed in lupin and blackberry; irrigation was impossible.

Now it's lush green pasture, thanks in part to the irrigation from the centre pivot system installed when the land was flattened.

For the marginal land only viable for dry-stock farming, it was a makeover, Mr Geary says.

"Taranaki Regional Council recommended planting it in trees because it was that bad, now it's dairy land.

"If you looked at this farm 15 years ago you couldn't contemplate it."

Landfarming, also known as land spreading, land disposal or land treatment, is the oil and gas companies' solution to the disposal of waste produced by drilling.

This waste is made up of drilling cuttings, which is ground-up rock and drilling mud, a mixture used as a lubricant for the drilling mechanism.

Down to a depth of about 1000m, this drilling mud is a water-based mixture (WBM) which has no toxicity.

Deeper down, an oil-based lubricant is required and operators switch to synthetic based muds (SBM), essentially manufactured oils.

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