Orepuki is at the very bottom of the South Island and apparently coal and oil seeps were visible there for many years. Largely unsuccessful attempts had been made in the late 1870s to mine coal and get at the oil shale.
The refinery was built "without warning" by a London based investment company The New Zealand Coal and Oil Company in 1899 amid much reported speculation about the involvement of prominent Southland businessmen and members of Parliament who might have been seen as aiding and abetting a scheme doomed to failure just to get their hands on investment monies. Irrespective, you would have to conclude from these images that someone was serious about the project - that's heavy duty engineering investment for 1901. By 1903 it was all over as some had predicted. The plant and the mining (maybe opencast but to be confirmed) employed over 100 people so closure would have been a bit of a shock as it to happened overnight and without warning??
Seminal to the demise seems to have been the removal of a government imposed import duty on kerosine - a valuable fuel and the main part of the recovered material from this particular shale deposit. It is one of the industrial relics that on the surface of it seems the most sad we have lost - apparently one brick building is all that remains. Confirmed from my March 2013 visit.