Peak oil on the agenda: Notes from the Australian Institute of Energy annual forum
[ The Australian Institute of Energy counts among its members government departments, universities, and some of Australia's largest energy, mining, manufacturing, banking and law firms.
James Ward, convenor of the ASPO-Australia Young Professionals Working Group donned his thrift store suit pants last week to attended the institute's 22nd Annual Forum and Dinner where the theme was "Transport Fuels: Future Prices and Supply Security Risks." The conference flyer promised much:
Escalating world oil prices coupled with increasing geopolitical tensions and questions about the real level of oil reserves are leading to fundamental change in the transport fuels sector and to energy policy around the world. This year the AIE’s annual Adelaide forum examines oil supply and demand fundamentals and the opportunities and threats posed by a higher-priced, supply-constrained environment.
James' report below contains some minor bombshells, for instance Lloyd Taylor, former Chairman of Shell NZ, claiming that even based on the USGS data, there is a 60% of peak oil by 2015.
James' report illuminates how deeply peak oil discourse has penetrated into parts of the government and business worlds in Australia. -AF ]
The conference was attended by about 40-50 people, mostly suits. I was doing my best to look the part in my op-shop suit pants and my only tie. I think I pulled it off okay.
There were seven speakers plus the guest speaker. Of these, only one (guess who? Yep, the ExxonMobil guy) attempted to tell the audience that everything was okay – that is, there’ll be plenty of oil (but he did concede that from now on it won’t be cheap). Another speaker (an economist) sidestepped the possibility of energy shocks and showed what would happen if China and India kept on growing at current rates – but he provided the caveat that this growth couldn’t occur if there was any sort of energy shock, and he seemed to imply that he didn’t believe his own numbers.
So the rest of the speakers, including the guest speaker (Senator Rachel Siewert) all acknowledged the danger of peak oil, and the words “prudent risk assessment” can be used to summarise their recommendations. The speaker who followed the ExxonMobil guy convincingly argued the case for caution and risk management and this was echoed by other speakers.
Two speakers convincingly argued the case for better city planning, especially promoting “sustainable transport” (walking and cycling) and heavily promoting public transport, especially in the outer suburbs where there is compounding vulnerability due to heavy car-dependence, relatively low household incomes and high levels of household debt.
Nobody in the audience publicly disagreed with the peak oil concept during question time. This may imply that either these energy professionals are largely in agreement with the peak oil theory, or else they were too scared / embarrassed to put up their hand to say they disagreed with it!
Senator Rachel Siewert presented the findings of the Senate Inquiry into Future Oil Supply and Alternative Transport Fuels, and concluded that peak oil is an issue that requires an enormous amount of attention as the risk and implications are huge.
Details of presentations
Energy Insecurity and the Great Convergence
Program Director of International Economy, Lowy Institute
Thirlwell began by discussing energy insecurity, in that he talked about the recent constraint in oil supply (i.e. supply being unable to rise to meet growing demand as easily as it had in the past, hence the high prices), as well as the shock of Hurricane Katrina and ongoing instability in the Middle East.
He then went on to discuss “the great convergence”. He talked about the divergence between, say, China’s GDP and that of the USA. His analysis suggested that with steady growth in China’s GDP (it has already been steadily growing for the past 20-25 years), it would fairly quickly close the gap (hence the term “convergence”). Ditto for India. He calls it “great convergence” because China and India combined make up about 1/3 of the world’s population.
Thirlwell admitted that the analysis he presented was naïve, in that it assumed no energy shocks or crises in the future. In other words, he was presenting the case of “what if the growth rates continue like they are at present?” without actually believing that they would continue like they are at present. When he admitted this, I couldn’t help but feel the presentation was a little pointless. But he is an economist, after all.
Points of interest
• In 1993, China changed from being a net oil exporter to a net oil importer
• The Communist Party needs economic growth in order to stay in power and keep its country stable (implying that if the growth stops, the people will revolt)
• Energy security involves diversification in supply and bilateral ties (i.e. mutual dependence between an energy exporter and an energy importer)
• There is the potential for China to rub shoulders with the U.S. over who gets the lion’s share of a particular country’s oil supply, however it is also possible that China would accept oil from countries that the U.S. refuses to deal with, meaning US/China conflict may be avoided
• Middle East is thought to have 60% of the world’s remaining oil reserves, so it remains a key place and China must take an interest in Middle East security
• China and India are not currently big consumers of natural gas, but China’s natural gas consumption is growing at 30% p.a. (meaning it will double every 2-3 years)
Q & A
Q: Environmental factors appear to have been overlooked in the analysis – what about China’s very serious environmental problems? Is this eternal growth possible?
A: The environment is a major constraint. The Chinese government is saying a lot about environmental consideration, but we don’t know if it is following up on what it’s saying. Moving towards natural gas and cleaner technologies may play a role here. Re-iterate that the trends shown assume no shocks – this is unlikely. It is more likely that China and India will have crises, therefore this analysis is somewhat naïve.
Q: What about the strong population growth in South America? How does this factor into the world outlook?
A: Brazil is not appearing to turn “potential” into “growth”; Mexico has a similar competitive advantage to China, and is therefore competing against a giant.
World Oil Reserves – Are we running out?
Former Exploration Director, Esso (now ExxonMobil) Australia (speaking as a private individual but also on behalf of ExxonMobil)
Schwebel began by mentioning that the recent growth in public interest on peak oil is really nothing new – doomsday warnings have been talked about since the early 1900s. His talk was aimed at squashing the rumours of peak oil by suggesting that global oil reserves are sufficient to cope with future growth (to 2030).
He stated that the global economy is linked to cheap energy, therefore irrespective of climate change concerns, we will continue to burn fossil fuels because they are cheap. To his credit, Schwebel admitted that oil is a finite resource and that growth in consumption can therefore not continue forever (although, he didn’t say what that would mean for the global economy). His analysis only stretched out to 2030, in which time he predicts energy use will have grown by 50% and oil will still be a major player. He then suggests there will be a “gentle decline” from 2030. He quoted 3 trillion barrels of oil recoverable out of a total reserve of 6-8 trillion barrels. Just under 1 trillion barrels would be enough to get us to 2030 based on his projected growth.
His presentation included a lot of flashy 3D images showing how technologically advanced the oil industry has become, implying that the 3 trillion barrels figure is very reliable.
He also said that oil reserves have historically been underestimated, implying that there might still be more oil than he has predicted. This could be achieved through advances in recovery technology, and that the 3 trillion barrels figure assumes 35% recovery (he seemed to indicate that it could potentially go higher than this).
In his summary he mentioned (almost in passing) that to achieve the predicted growth in production required to satisfy demand, $200 billion in annual investment would be required (over $2 million per hour for the next 25 years). The only way to facilitate this investment is to continue having high prices.
Points of interest
• Expected growth rates in energy production to 2030:
º Oil 1.4%
º Gas 1.8%
º Coal 1.8%
º Wind & solar 11%
º Other 1.8%
º Total energy growth 1.6%
• Fossil fuels expected to make up ~75% of total energy by 2030
• Wind & solar expected to make up ~1% of total energy by 2030 (despite 11% growth!)
• He expects 40% of vehicles in the U.S. to be hybrids by 2030
• All growth from ~2015 will have to be undertaken by OPEC (i.e. non-OPEC will peak by 2015)
Q & A
Q: With climate change being increasingly recognised as a serious issue, how long will it take to make the necessary changes?
A: The global economy is linked to cheap energy. And for instance, China’s growth in coal power plants is huge. As China is investing so heavily in the infrastructure, it will want to make use of this infrastructure for some time. So it will be hard to change the source of energy and therefore the main issue is how to deal with the emissions.
(I presume he means dealing with the climate change that results from the emissions, not capturing the emissions themselves.)
Q: Peak oil was largely dismissed in this forecast – so why do we need such high prices? Given that commentators like Matthew Simmons have suggested that the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) is decreasing, notably in Saudi Arabia, then perhaps you are suggesting that there is a large amount of oil left but the cheap oil is running out – i.e. from here on it will all be expensive?
A: Firstly, current oil prices are not simply a product of supply and demand. For instance, when Chevron announced their Gulf of Mexico discovery recently the price dropped, even though the oil from that discovery won’t come online for 10 years.
But, yes, the “low-hanging fruit” has largely been picked and therefore the future is one of high fuel cost.
(I’m not sure how this fits in with his previous statement that the world economy is linked to cheap energy and therefore we can’t afford to bother about climate change!)
Peak Oil – Myth or Risk?
Chairman, Core Collaborative
Former Chairman and Managing Director, Shell NZ
Taylor presented an objective analysis of the peak oil debate, beginning by highlighting the fact that there is a lot of talk about peak oil (both for and against the theory) and that most of the information currently available is based on assumptions, carries great uncertainty and is generally unreliable. Huge numbers of people have apparently become experts overnight, on both sides of the debate. He went on to examine the theory from a risk assessment perspective.
The first part of the risk assessment looked at the fact that the question of continuing availability of oil is central to all business models. He went on to say that historically, supply capacity has been in abundance and supply could always be increased to cope with growth in demand, without significant price rises. However, with very modest demand growth in the past few years we’ve seen a trebling of price as supply has been unable to increase. This is real experience, so it should form part of the risk assessment.
The North Sea and Mexico have both recently gone into decline, joining the U.S. which peaked in about 1970. With 3 of the world’s biggest producing regions now shown to be in decline, the risk grows.
He went through the historical case of the U.S. peak, the influence of technological advances on post-peak production in the U.S., and the fact that despite huge advances in technology, the timing of the peak could not be delayed – all that could be achieved was to slightly ease the decline, but nothing could be done to stop it.
Taylor finished by looking at the uncertainty in the U.S. Geological Survey’s reserve estimates (which are the ones quoted by ExxonMobil) and concluded that based on the uncertainty alone, there is a 60% chance of global peak before 2015 and that businesses should “ignore this at their own peril”.
Points of interest
• The peak oil phenomenon is documented on the country level and many countries are post-peak
• Based on the various so-called “expert opinions” we can say that the global peak will occur sometime between yesterday and never!
• Of total oil production (84-85 million barrels per day), about 87% of this is “crude oil” plus “condensate”, and the remaining portion is things like heavy oil, natural gas liquids etc
º Most condensate is locked into long-term constant production contracts and therefore can’t be increased
• U.S. production is declining at about 2.8% and is now only about 1/3 of its peak production rate (around 1970), but it is still a major global producer and in fact was the largest producer in the world until 1997.
• The giant Cantarell field in Mexico is now in decline
• Production increase and demand destruction both occurred in response to high prices in past oil shocks, but it took a 15-fold increase in price to make significant changes (recently we’ve only had about a 3-fold price rise)
• There have been massive technology advances since the 60s, including huge advances in predictive capability, and the uptake of this new technology has been immediate. Still, this did not ameliorate the U.S. peak, it only slowed the decline
• “Enhanced oil recovery” (as espoused by ExxonMobil) only lifts the tail – it doesn’t affect the peak
• The alternatives currently available are not readily or cheaply scalable
• Statistically, there is only a 40% chance that the USGS “mean estimate” of ultimately recoverable reserves will be achieved. Therefore to base future decisions on their mean estimate, you are gambling on worse than even odds!
Q & A
Q: Was there significant investment in U.S. production post-peak?
A: Yes, the rig-count doubled and drilling activity went into overload, due to the very high return (high prices). It still didn’t do any more than slow the rate of decline.
Responding to the Challenge
Former VP, Planning and Marketing, BHP Petroleum
Former GM, Corporate Planning & Economics, Shell Australia
Velins started off talking about the nature of the current crisis. It differs from past crises, in that right now the oil crisis is a result of systematic under-investment by industry and lack of government action (presumably he means the government needs to regulate the industry to make sure it invests for the future). A long term agenda needs to be set that includes the development of new engine and fuel technologies.
The responses to the current crisis from the oil industry are basically to keep supply and demand tight – OPEC producers don’t need any more money so it makes more sense to constrain supply rather than invest huge amounts of money and reduce the price. Another theory is that oil producers are anticipating a reduction in demand as cars become more efficient (eg hybrids).
Velins mentioned that OPEC quoted oil reserves have remained constant for some years despite continuing consumption (OPEC has a reserve-based quota system so a country has an incentive to overstate their reserve figures, the true values of which are generally kept a national secret). Also, different countries quote different figures for their oil reserves – some use the 10% confidence figure, others use the 90% one. Australia adds condensate to its oil reserves. So we don’t know how much oil we’re dealing with.
In the U.S., ethanol production diverts corn away from cattle feed, while in Australia ethanol would mostly come from wheat. In both cases, there is a complex problem with various interests. All in all, he said biofuels are of limited potential. He questioned the usefulness of alternatives like tar sands because of the energy required to extract the oil.
Velins mentioned that the timing of peak oil is now irrelevant as all predictions fall within the planning horizon of the majors. China could be in for real trouble as economic growth depends on energy growth. He then raised an interesting question: Why has the International Panel on Climate Change not factored peak oil into greenhouse gas forecasts?
Because of the limited potential for alternatives, oil and gas will remain the dominant transport fuels for some time, but the price will continue to increase. Governments must act now to prepare for a future of high transport fuel costs. We need “a good decade” to prepare, in terms of establishing the necessary skills and labour, and ensuring mobility. A great quote was that “the greatest skills shortage is leadership!”
Velins had a chilling view of the Middle East. Afghanistan was invaded by the U.S. under the motive of fighting terrorism but a “secondary” motive was stabilising a key piece in the Middle East energy puzzle. Ditto for Iraq. Iran is an interesting case because it is a traditional enemy of the Arabs, and is also an enemy of Israel. Iran has a proven missile delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons. If Iran acquires the oil-fields of Iraq, it could become bigger than Saudi Arabia and would be “the new superpower” of the Middle East. What would this mean for consumers?
His final comments related to market failure, which he said CAN happen. Taxation is an effective tool, eg in Europe where diesel was favoured due to fuel taxes and this encouraged more people to buy diesel cars (which are more efficient than petrol ones). Demand management like this is necessary. We need substantial investment in skills, supply security and most of all, education of the public as to the nature of energy supply & cost.
Points of interest
• Because of an upsurge in resource nationalism (eg Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez nationalised the previously private oil industry), oil companies are actually lacking investment opportunities to the point where they are returning capital to shareholders!
• The government response of subsidising LPG and ethanol is not useful because it doesn’t help alleviate demand, forces increased reliance on imports and is therefore bad for fuel security.
• In response to the recent price hike, in Australia there have been declining sales in 4WDs and large vehicles in general – Velins pointed out that the biggest sufferers of the oil crisis could be the vehicle manufacturers.
• There have been large ($billions) cost overruns on high-tech ventures (presumably he means enhanced oil recovery and similar) that have caused a reversion to older, proven technology.
• Australia has a “voluntary” fuel efficiency target of 6.8L/100km for cars, and according to Velins it is currently more like 14L/100km, meaning efficiency needs to more than double in 4 years. In contrast, Japan’s target is 4.9L/100km.
No questions were asked
Australian Transport Fuel Supply Security – South Australia’s Risks and Options
Managing Director, Australian Farmers Fuel Pty Ltd (aka SAFF)
Like most of his talks that I’ve heard, Fischer began by saying that he believes “farmers are the future oil barons of Australia”. However, the remainder of his talk did not relate to this at all.
Fisher spoke mostly about his difficulties as an independent fuel supplier competing in the South Australian market, which has traditionally been regulated to favour the majors (especially ExxonMobil). In 1995 SA’s fuel market was deregulated and independents were allowed in. Fisher talked a lot about the Port Stanvac import facility, which has 500,000 tonnes of storage but was mothballed in 2003. Since then, there has been an increased risk of fuel shortages due to the tiny amount of storage available outside Port Stanvac. Petrol stations have actually run out of fuel on occasion. There are import facilities (like Port Stanvac) in every other state.
Also, without a large storage facility, one cannot take advantage of an economy-of-scale with shipping (larger deliveries are cheaper, but they require large storage). Fisher’s company is planning a new site in SA that will be for large-scale diesel storage and biodiesel manufacturing.
Q & A
Q: What is the consumer acceptance of ethanol in your ethanol-blended petrol?
A: SAFF has deliberately steered clear of the word “ethanol” due to negative press (hence the term “bio-unleaded petrol”). They have also found that with the proprietary additive they put in (as well as the ethanol), it outperforms equivalent unleaded from other suppliers. They have increased their market share since offering bio-unleaded.
Q: How are engine manufacturers responding to biofuels?
A: The market has not been interested enough to invest in the concept – they liked the idea but didn’t trust it in their engines. SAFF’s solution has been to offer a biodiesel blend called B20 that actually varies from 8% to 23% biodiesel (the rest diesel) that meets the full standard for fuel diesel. As a side-note, Fischer said, every engine manufacturer has received funding from an oil major.
Suburban Shocks: Urban location, housing debt and oil vulnerability in Australian cities
(Somehow Dodson managed to appear on “Today Tonight” at the exact same time as he was delivering his talk to us!)
Unlike the other speakers, Dodson comes from a social science background. His interest has been looking at how the use of energy corresponds to the function of cities. The nature of transport use changes across cities – different people use different transport and therefore there is a range of risks (eg bicycles are not at risk to oil shortages). Different people have different financial circumstances such as mortgages, credit card debt and so on. Dodson has investigated the combination of transport (energy) risk and debt risk.
Car dependence is a big problem in Australian cities; like Americans, Australians tend to be highly dependent on cars. However, the degree to which we depend on cars depends on location – the outer suburbs tend to be more car-dependent. Sydney has the best data on travel behaviour, and it shows that the affluent inner-city and east-city dwellers use cars less (and car use is still decreasing), while residents from the west and outer suburbs, who are generally less well-off financially, use their cars more (and car use is increasing). One reason for this is that there is a “legacy of collective investment” in good public transport in the east, but not in the west – therefore public transport is more efficient and convenient (and hence more desirable) in the east than in the west. Also, because people living close to the city are more often within walking or cycling distance of their workplace, they have more choices open to them than people in the outer suburbs.
Household debt has tripled in the past decade and is increasing. This needs to be dealt with! The boom in debt has been largely due to strong economic growth and low interest rates, and has been coupled to increasing house sizes. Like transport, debt is not distributed evenly across cities. People with less money tend to find themselves limited to buying property in outer suburbs. They tend to have a high amount of debt due to their lower income, so greater financial difficulty tends to be found in the outer suburbs.
This leads to a double vulnerability in the outer suburbs – high car-dependence (meaning high vulnerability to fuel prices) coupled with high debt risk. Already we are seeing rising levels of mortgagee default and decreasing house sale prices. Yet, despite the widespread knowledge of Australia’s love of the automobile and the great Australian dream of owning one’s own home, there have been no studies of this kind in the past!
Dodson’s research (with Neil Sipe) has involved vulnerability assessment right down to the level of a census collector’s district (which can be smaller than a single suburb). By combining the dependence on transport fuel with household financial risk, they can map the overall vulnerability of each of these districts. They show a common pattern, with the highest vulnerability in the outer suburbs. The map of Adelaide was being shown publicly for the first time. Like the maps of other cities, vulnerability is highest in the outer suburbs.
In terms of solutions, tax cuts and mortgage relief are not location-specific (i.e. a tax cut would affect people across the whole city) and Dodson suggested such solutions were not good. Instead, spatially targeted public transport investment would be a far better solution. Also, there is a need for investment in further research to look at household budgeting and the relative cost of fuel in household budgets. Above all, the government needs to articulate this issue to the public: how would our cities fare in a constrained energy situation? The debate is essential if we are to continue to live easily in cities.
Points of interest
• Energy growth drives economic growth, which leads to high vulnerability (i.e. your economy is as vulnerable as your energy source).
• In Brisbane, due to difficulty in selling property in outer suburbs, there has been at least one “house, land & fuel package” where the buyer received a $10K voucher for fuel!
• People have been driving less in response to recent high fuel prices.
• The interest rate rises are largely predictable by people observing the condition of the economy, however energy security is much less predictable (hurricanes, wars, terrorist attacks, etc).
• Although the general trend is that the most vulnerable suburbs are the outer ones, there are some patchy areas where a good public transport route might reduce the vulnerability of one suburb but the neighbouring suburb is not well serviced. I was interested to note that in some cases, there are visible thin lines of “security” stretching way out into the outer suburbs, which correspond to train lines!
• Although transport energy use is greater in the outer suburbs, the inner suburbs consume more energy overall. Therefore, if a greenhouse strategy was to come into action, the inner suburbs perhaps should be targeted harder than the outer ones.
Q & A
Q: Should we be moving away from the quarter-acre block and increase the density of housing?
A: This debate has been taking place for 20+ years. The fact is that new stock is a very small percentage of the total housing market, therefore consolidating (so that all new housing is high density) will not have a very large effect on the whole of the market. A better solution is to simply improve public transport to outer suburbs!
Q: Authors such as James Howard Kunstler have basically predicted that suburbia will die (due to peak oil). Should we therefore stop encouraging “mega-cities” and start encouraging tighter, smaller cities?
A: The city size is somewhat market-limited, as indicated by the exodus from Sydney in response to living costs. But, for relatively low investment, we can encourage bus transport. Currently, really sustainable transport (walking and cycling) receives virtually no funding. The recommendation is for much greater government investment in public transport and walking/cycling opportunities.
Oil Prices and Technological Change
Sustainable Business Practices Pty Ltd
Atkins began by showing the graph made famous by Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, showing CO2 levels never in the last 600,000 going above 300ppm, and today’s at 380ppm. He then mentioned the recent Stern Report, and the acknowledgement by Rupert Murdoch that climate change needs action now. However, much of the debate has focused on stationary energy, as evident by the focus on clean coal and nuclear power, whereas nearly a sixth (14.5%) of CO2 emissions in Australia come from burning transport fuels. He then went on to look at peak oil – considering climate change and peak oil, we need to alter our behaviour somewhat!
In Australia, we have a love of large vehicles. Indeed, many people believe they “need” a V8! We are beginning to see a shift towards smaller vehicles due to recent high prices, however there is only one manufacturer in Australia who makes a 4 cylinder car. Therefore, as we shift towards more efficient cars, we will be moving towards more and more imports from Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and especially China (he said something like “watch this space” with regard to China). The small-car producers are also investing in research and technology for hybrids and can therefore be expected to continue to increase their market share over the 6- and 8-cylinder Australian cars as people are compelled to buy more efficient vehicles.
In terms of fuel options for vehicles, there is a range of options. One such option is hydrogen, which has generally been considered the “holy grail”, with zero emissions and so on. Hydrogen faces numerous challenges. Energy is required to separate hydrogen and oxygen out of water, then storage and distribution infrastructure (including fuelling stations) all needs to be engineered and built. Iceland is beginning its transition to a hydrogen economy.
Other fuels more immediately within reach include LPG (lower CO2 emissions) and diesel (15-25% better fuel efficiency). Biofuels can potentially reduce overall CO2 emissions but should be limited to recycling waste products (not growing plants especially for fuel). Atkins said there needs to be more debate about biofuels.
Toyota has publicly stated that unless the automotive industry looks at environmental issues, it has no future. Atkins said that Toyota’s move towards hybrid technology was not motivated out of altruism, but rather out of the perceived increase in demand for environmentally conscious products. Atkins mentioned that the technology in the Toyota Prius, while an environmental breakthrough, also delivered high performance, so the alternatives don’t necessarily have to be unpleasant. Motives for change in industry include the availability and price of raw materials, regulations (eg carbon pricing), random technological breakthroughs, and customer trends. He illustrated the last one by highlighting the boom in organic food demand in response to consumers’ desire to live healthily.
Having spent time in Scandinavia, Atkins suggested that there are better ways to design and plan cities than the Australian way (which is dominated by the car). He referred to cities in Scandinavia that are designed with a hierarchy: people first, then bicycles, then public transport, and cars last. Planning like this is a no-regrets strategy as it encourages healthier transport such as walking and cycling.
In his recommendations, Atkins said that the solutions will come not only from better technology, but also from better planning, especially planning that recognises the long-term interconnectedness of waste, energy and transport.
Points of interest
• One interesting concept is that unpredictable renewable technology such as wind and solar energy could be used to generate hydrogen, which can then be stored and used for base-load power generation (which is something that those renewables traditionally cannot provide) and transport fuel.
• “The cleanest energy is the energy you don’t have to use!”
Q & A
Q: With South Australia’s apparently rich endowment of geothermal energy, can SA become the leader in generating hydrogen from geothermal?
A: Iceland has geothermal energy production but it is located near water.
Lloyd Taylor (Petratherm director, and a previous speaker) then responded to the question: in Australia we would need to either transport the water a long way inland or transmit the electricity a long way to the coast.
Q: John Howard doesn’t seem to think carbon trading is the answer, yet they seem to be doing it in Europe. How do they do it there?
A: Carbon trading adds costs and the detail becomes difficult to comprehend. In terms of setting targets, many businesses simply don’t know what their emissions were in 1990 so it is near impossible to set targets.
Australia was a leader in the carbon trading concept, but it has lost intellectual capital to Europe and needs to regain it.
The Senate’s Future Oil Supply and Alternative Transport Fuels Inquiry
Senator Rachel Siewert
Deputy Chair, Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee
The government has recently amalgamated the Senate Committees. (Siewert was previously the Chair of the committee but is now Deputy Chair.) At the time of the amalgamation, so much work had been done by the committee that they decided to give an interim report. The interim report is basically a summary of opinions, while the final report (due 30/11/2006) will be more a list of recommendations. The inquiry was inspired by Senator Christine Milne, who has a keen interest in climate change and peak oil within the Greens, but the committee included representatives from the ALP, Liberals and Nationals (as well as the Greens).
The committee received an incredible 192 submissions, including many from local government offices, as well as peak oil groups, industry associations and so on. The full list of submissions (and the interim report itself) is available online at:
Most submissions agreed that peak oil is an issue, but there was widespread disagreement on the date of the peak. The submissions from peak oil “activists” were generally very detailed and thoroughly argued, whereas the submissions from “denialists” were generally weaker in their arguments. The committee concluded that there was insufficient evidence to suggest things will be okay beyond 2030. If peak oil occurs before 2030 it is a matter for concern, therefore Australia must plan for it now, as Sweden is doing.
On the supply side, Geoscience Australia’s submission highlighted the fact that self-sufficiency will decline, and that we appear to be coming to the end of the age of cheap oil. Import dependence makes Australia vulnerable to higher prices. Alternatives to oil include biofuels, unconventional oil and gas-to-liquids. The future will need to have a mix of energies, and it is recognised that whatever the source (even if it is conventional crude), our future fuels will have a higher cost. With this in mind, should we be investing in more exploration or alternatives? It appears that we should be investing in ways to reduce our dependence on fossil oil, but decisions will be made based on business economics.
Biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) are potentially carbon neutral, however they compete with textile and food production for land. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is critical as feedstock crop production requires substantial energy inputs. The WA Farmers submission presented their strategy to roll out biodiesel co-ops in order to become “fuel self-sufficient”.
Palm oil (a feedstock for biodiesel) is also displacing rainforests in Southeast Asia – a cause of great environmental concern. First-generation biofuels (the ones on the market today such as canola-biodiesel and grain-ethanol) are generally not very promising. However, second-generation biofuels (eg lignocellulose ethanol) have significantly more potential. The government’s 350ML biofuel target is modest and should be increased.
There were conflicting opinions on the validity of hydrogen as a future energy, however Siewert said that a submission from a Tasmanian company was very convincing and gave her a sense of hope for the future of hydrogen.
Demand-side strategies were also addressed by the committee. Efficiency and public transport were common themes among submissions, along with better urban planning and increased use of rail for long-distance freight (except the submission from the truck transport lobby, which argued for no rail!). It was recommended that the Commonwealth government make more funds available for public transport, as well as grants for fuel efficiency projects and a re-assessment of the Fringe Benefits Tax to change the use of incentives/disincentives.
Risk management is essential as we look at peak oil. The Hirsch Report (commissioned by the U.S. government) was recommended as it looks at the risks.
Points of interest
• High petrol prices conveniently generated a lot of interest in the inquiry
• The committee looked at the vulnerability in cities and agriculture. The latter is thought to be highly vulnerable.
• There was a convergence of the twin issues of peak oil and climate change, so it was agreed that any solution to peak oil must consider greenhouse gas emissions.
• Gas is thought to be the most significant “transition fuel” for Australia.
• According to ABARE, some non-conventional petroleum becomes cost-effective at about $40/barrel, however this does not consider the carbon cost
• Mallee trees are being grown in WA for oil and fuel-wood, and have potential for lignocellulose ethanol production (2nd generation biofuel) whilst also offering some biodiversity advantages
• A company called Microbiogen made a submission suggesting that with second-generation biofuel technology, the Australian sugar industry could easily provide 10% of Australia’s fuel needs (I presume they mean using the bagasse waste, not the sugar itself)
• The committee heard from Dr Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, who told them that “air travel is on borrowed time”
• The government’s Energy White Paper is outdated, however the committee will probably not be able to state this in the report!
• Will Australian alternatives be traded globally if the global market price goes up?
Q & A
Q: (Nicholas Mumford, Santos) Is “gas reservation” effective as energy security, or is it just setting ourselves up to be subject to international markets?
A: Security means ensuring domestic supply, so we should be hanging onto our gas rather than flogging it off cheaply.
Q: (Malcolm Messenger, AIE) How did the committee actually get up and running?
A: The Greens recommended it to the government regarding climate change and peak oil, and surprisingly the government accepted! The acceptance of the inquiry was probably largely due to the Nationals’ support for biofuels via the farmer connection. All senators on the committee found it to be a fascinating experience.
Q: (Mr Shearer, Dept of Transport, Energy & Infrastructure) Will globalisation survive peak oil?
A: The committee didn’t study it much, except that air travel appears to be headed for downsizing whilst there may be more sea trade and more localisation. The suspicion is that globalisation will suffer, but this is hard to predict due to the high level of communications technology that is now available (perhaps such services will soften the blow).
Q: (Hamilton Calder, RAA) The general theme is that there is no “silver bullet” and that our future needs will be met by many solutions. What about the role of automotive manufacturers?
A: Auto makers were most disappointing in their response and in their expectations. There will be many solutions, and one of the most exciting is second-generation biofuels and fuels from algae (first generation biofuels may provide a useful transition). Coal-to-liquids is not a great option due to the CO2 so why not step past it and go straight to second-generation biofuels?
Q: (Andy Fischer, SAFF) Can we remove things like the 10% ethanol cap to help stimulate investment in biofuels?
A: The industry wants better fuel standards before it will begin to accept biofuels for use in standard engines.
Q: (Barbara Hardie) Have you compared biosequestration (i.e. planting trees) to geosequestration (locking CO2 underground)?
A: The concern with these “carbon-neutral” technologies is that they are not aimed at creating a significant cut in emissions. These technologies have potential but they are not the full answer. The priority is that we need to get our policy settings right (I presume she means a carbon tax, that will encourage people to burn less fuel, and neutralise whatever they do burn).
At our dinner table we had an interesting guy from Business SA. He was very agitated, not by the nature of the conference or because of any disagreement with peak oil, but because he is constantly faced with the fact that small innovators are being shut out of the market because nobody is willing to invest. When it comes to investing the money necessary to roll out a good piece of technology, the government generally doesn’t come to the party. For instance, Origin Energy is ready for a roll-out of their new solar technology. That roll-out will cost ~ $100 million. The SA government could apply a 2c/kWh tax on power to raise the revenue and put Origin in business, creating jobs for South Australians, etc etc – but they won’t do it.
I feel that we face a similar challenge with petrol taxes. The best thing we could do would be to increase the fuel excise to provide the funding necessary to roll out more public transport and educate the public to buy more efficient cars (and perhaps some of that money could be made available to get companies like Holden and Mistubishi to start building smaller cars too!).
Who will provide the brave leadership we need?
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
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