Is Australia still asleep at the wheel?

This piece I helped author has been published by ABC Online to support a two day visit to Canberra as we try to raise awareness of Peak Oil and the CSIRO Future Fuels Forum work:

By Bruce Harrison, Monica Richter and Phil Hart.

When the CSIRO auspiced Future Fuels Forum report was released in July the resulting headlines were pretty scary. "Petrol tipped to hit $8 a litre by 2018" and "$8 a litre fuel shock" had the talkback lines buzzing.

They also put policy makers on notice about potential future scenarios and government's clear role to help prepare Australia for the twin realities of climate change and increasingly scarce and expensive oil.

While the Federal Government has started the process of preparing the Australian economy for a carbon constrained economy, Australian politicians still seem asleep to the need to prepare Australia for a future peak oil scenario. The current financial crisis, while serious, has the potential to further distract from this vital preparation.

Easy credit has been a way of avoiding rather than facing up to the impact of stagnating oil supply and rising oil prices. It would be a serious mistake to see the current decline in oil prices as a sign the problems of oil supply have been fixed. They haven't.

Unprecedented volatility in financial markets means commodity prices may not reflect their real value for some time to come. Declining demand may also reduce oil prices. But when the world economy eventually recovers, the limits to oil supply will again become apparent.

It is vital Australia gets ready for that oil constrained future now. A good first step would be to conduct a national oil vulnerability assessment and establish a strategy to help Australia manage the risk of oil supply shortfalls and eventual decline.

Australia is particularly vulnerable in two areas: we are extremely car dependent and increasingly rely on imports for our supply of oil. By 2015 two thirds of the oil we use in Australia will be imported.

To reduce our vulnerability, we need to massively increase the efficiency of our freight and passenger transport systems, diversify our fuel supplies and switch to less carbon intensive energy sources. Our priorities for building new national infrastructure must reflect these challenges.

The CSIRO study showed that Australia's fuel mix is likely to become more diverse with a heavy reliance on hybrid/electric cars and other low emission vehicles for city commuting, natural gas for large vehicles (freight and buses), sustainable biofuels especially in regional areas, diesel and LPG and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). While coal to liquids could in theory be a potential fuel source, even with carbon capture and storage technologies, liquid coal has a substantial greenhouse footprint and should be ruled out. We have better and more sustainable alternatives.

How quickly Australia is able to reduce its oil vulnerability will depend on the new policies and development of new infrastructure. Retrofitting of freight vehicles for CNG, a distribution network and mandates for the use of natural gas and environmentally appropriate biofuels, and the ability for private motor vehicles to plug into a clean renewable electricity grid are just some of the steps we need to take.

Government has a clear role in making this happen.

In terms of natural gas, if Australia does decide to keep this resource available for national use, we should not expect it to come cheaply. As LNG facilities are built to export natural gas, local prices will rise to approach parity with the rest of the world and Australia will have to compete on the global market for these supplies. Global gas markets will tighten further as gas is used to replace oil (and coal) and as producers struggle to expand supply. While gas is cleaner than petrol and could help address some of our transport fuel problems in the short term, we must think beyond natural gas pretty quickly if we are cut emissions at the scale required to successfully respond to climate change.

Of course behaviour change is just as important as technological change. That means helping Australians change their choices by, for example, giving employees incentives to catch public transport, removing perverse subsidies and designing our cities to be better integrated with flexible transport hubs close to community facilities.

We have a big challenge ahead of us to decarbonise our society and become much more efficient in our use of the limited oil available to us. The sooner we start, the less it will cost us in the future.

Bruce Harrison (chief executive officer, Australian Biofuels Association), Monica Richter (Sustainable Australia program manager, Australian Conservation Foundation) and Phil Hart (member, Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil) were participants at the CSIRO's Future Fuels Forum.

Living in Melbourne, I've not heard of any initiative by the government regarding peak oil. Australia is basically as asleep as the rest of the world with regards to peak and no doubt will remain that way till the real crisis emerges.

People have been harping on about climate change for decades now, what's the result? Emissions have been rising! wonderful! No one's going to do a damn thing, till it starts hitting the wallet. And it will, I expect in the future we will start reacting when the effects have become far more serious than they are today. Our obsession with "growth" is killing the planet and us with it.

You didn't google search. There aren't significant initiatives, it seems, but "Asleep at the wheel" is a bit harsh.

NSW, a few weeks ago:

QLD, a year ago:

Federally, almost two years ago:

This was during the previous Government.

Having been disappointed with Govt action on CO2, why do you feel content to sit and wait for them to fix this problem? I suggest you start trying to fix it yourself. Get more involved. I'm sure ASPO Australia has a great deal of work for you to do, just call them and ask what they need you to do.

I think asleep at the wheel is being a bit generous. My experince with government so far is that they willlsiten politely but never respond to any specific questions, just head patting and soothing words that everything will be OK and there is no need to worry. Neither the this goverenmetn or the previous one have yet responded to the senate committee report and it is unlikely that they will get around to it in this parliamnetary term. By then the report will be considered too old and not worth responding to. Andrew Macnamaras report doesn'seem to have had much impact yet.

Good luck in Canberra Phil. Perhaps you can steer all the politiciasn to take a few housrs and look at Chris Martensons excellent Crash Course, which is the best thing I've seen so far that brings it all together.

Surely Australia should act to secure natural gas resources for the national market at a reasonable price instead of fostering deals to sell it at relatively low prices to foreign buyers. Perhaps this is a little simplistic and certainly will not solve problems longterm but it seems to me that Australia needs to do more to use its natural resources to leverage its economic position internationally. Is 'resource nationalisation' a dirty word in Australia? If the government wants to actually help its citizens rather than filling the pockets of incompetent US-owned companies like Apache Energy, then surely steps need to be taken in this direction. Stated as a question: Do Australian resource exports benefit Australians enough? If not, then the government must act or be ousted.

Its hard to see why that would actually be necessary.

When I sat down and worked it out it seemed that we could build all the planned LNG plants, switch all our power generation to gas, switch all our transport to CNG, cater for another decade or two of growth before plateauing and still have enough gas to last over 50 years.

That didn't really point to us needing to adopt any sort of resource nationalisation policy at all - unless you can see a flaw in my numbers.

Thanks for the links, I missed that coal seam gas article you did recently - good work!

I saw your comment below the article "our economy remains stuck in an extractionist model which has to end one day". What would be your suggestion for getting away from this situation? Feed-in tariffs for alternative energy? Funneling a proportion of taxes from coal and gas coporations into alternative energy development in Australia?

It seems the energy situation in Australia is significanlty more simple than in other countries but that the government must first provide clear policies to generate sensible investment in alternative energy and the associated infrastructure. With clear legislation, economic decisions can be made with *stable* financial time horizons. Particularly in the current market situation, it is vital to nourish new ventures through stable returns on investment.

So perhaps that's my point - that resource exports must provide longterm benefit to Australia in the form of innovative infrastructure and energy projects. I think Australians might be surprised to find the positive resonance such measures would have overseas. Strategic partnerships should be formed with countries like Germany for developing solar, for example.

Thanks - alas, the coal seam gas post wasn't considered front page worthy so not many people saw it.

I've always viewed carbon taxes (starting from a low base and ratcheting up each year forevermore) as the simplest way to solve the problem.

In lieu of that, an ETS (with the number of permits issued reducing each year until they hit zero in 40 years time) would be an alternative.

Obviously a feed in tariff would be excellent under any scenario, as would an MRET (mandatory renewable energy target) that increases each year.

The main problem Oz has it that it has plenty of fossil fuels, earns much of its export income from them and they are cheaper than clean alternatives (when externalities are ignored). So we've got a very difficult habit to kick - for Japan or Germany or California making the switch is all good in the long run - down here it will be a problem.

But in the meantime it means our economy is more sheltered from peak oil than most.