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Running on empty: Australia’s dependence on imported fossil fuels

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Australia’s dependence on traditional and imported liquid fuel sources and transport technologies is putting our national security – and very way of life – at risk, a new study has found. Yet Australia continues to ignore alternative fuel strategies, that could include more renewable energy and electric vehicles.

An NRMA-commissioned report on the nation’s liquid fuel security, released on Monday, warns that Australia’s severely declining oil refining industry, and increasing demand for liquid fuels, could result in a scenario in 2030 where it has less than 20 days worth of fuel in reserve, and 100 per cent imported liquid fuel dependency.

The report says there are potential scenarios that could put the daily lives of Australians at risk, yet “there is no plan to stop our dependency growing to 100% or to halt the further decline of our fuel security.”

The report, written by retired Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn, finds that Australia’s dependence on imported liquid fuel and oil for transport has grown from around 60 per cent in 2000 to 90 per cent today, with no plan or public government policy to stop this blowing out to 100 per cent.

Such a lack of capacity, says Blackburn, “puts at risk our national security and lifestyle should there be a major event that impacts our liquid fuel supply chain.”

A confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region, for example, could see Australians suffer food shortages, a lack of adequate access to medical services or pharmaceutical supplies, an inability get to work and, if the problem lasts for more than a few weeks, no work to go to. “It is that serious,” says the report.

Titled Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security, the report recommends a comprehensive, national response that addresses both demand and supply sides of the liquid fuel delivery chain, including increased focus on the technologies and energy sources used and alternative fuel supply.

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This is not the first time an NRMA report has called for greater investment in, and focus on, developing Australia’s alternative fuels sector. Back in 2008, it commissioned the Jamison Group to develop a roadmap for greener, alternative transport fuels to help end Australia’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.

At the time, Jamison estimated that “if Australia were thrown back on its own oil resources… sometime in 2014 the heavily transport-dependent economy would literally grind to a halt.”

The report, updated by Jamison in 2010, proposed a series of steps to end Australia’s dependence on imported oil and secure its own transport energy future; the first being to establish a national energy policy and department specifically charged with the development of greener, alternative fuels and the fast-tracking of electric vehicle infrastructure.

The 2010 report states that steps taken immediately could see Australia’s replace coal-generated electricity with gas and wind, biomass, solar, thermal and marine energy within 20 years. Electric vehicles running on this electricity would produce zero emissions.

“Australia is in a much better position to tackle this problem because of the abundance of resources we have and the capacity for innovative research and development – what we need now is leadership,” NRMA Motoring & Services President Wendy Machin said four years ago.

“While we export record amounts of gas to other parts of the world for their energy use, we should also start developing it for our own transport consumption at home.

“We know that we can increase our production of bio-fuels from non-food sources as a short-term measure to reduce our dependence on oil and legislate to ensure cars are more fuel efficient.

Four years later, and – as this chart from the current NRMA-commissioned report shows, below – there is still plenty of room for improvement in the development of Australia’s alternative fuels sector.

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The 2010 report also recommended fast-tracking the adoption of the electric car and charging stations as a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine. But, NRMA warned that “unless we upgrade our electricity grid to be generated by renewable energy then there will be no environmental benefit gained from doing away with oil.”

Today, in its current report – as in its submission to the government’s Energy White Paper earlier this month – NRMA again stressed the importance of alternative fuels, calling for “a much more comprehensive review of alternative and emerging energy sources and technology for transport.”

NRMA argues there is ample scope for alternative and emerging energy sources and technology to play a significant role in enhancing Australia’s transport fuel security, as well as supporting a reliable and affordable transport fuel sector and reducing transport related greenhouse gas emissions.

On this last point, the report notes, “it is critical to remember that any changes we make to our energy mix in order to improve our fuel security should not be at the expense of climate or environment factors.” Otherwise, the report warns, “we will merely substitute one potential crisis for another.”Screen Shot 2014-02-24 at 10.25.05 AM

The question we should be asking our Government and ourselves, says the report, is this: “Is it important enough to make sure we retain some refining capability in Australia so we keep the ability to meet a proportion of our liquid fuel needs from Australian-controlled sources?

“Waiting for a catastrophic failure before acting could result in damage to our security, our economy and our way of life. And the longer we wait to act, the fewer options we will have.”

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  • Miles Harding

    Not to mention the great imbalance of payments caused by all the oil importation now.

    Of Australia’s natural gas, little is LPG (which has mostly been promised to the Chinese anyway), leaving largely methane that does not liquify at room temperature.

    The use of natural gas has two options, as I see it:
    1) Directly use the gas
    A major upgrade and extension of the existing gas pipelines and conversion of the vehicle fleet to directly use NG. This has the down side that the entire distribution network is full of the most potent of greenhouse gases.
    2) Synthesise liquid fuels
    Use something like the Fischer-Tropsch process to convert methane to gasoline and diesel. The fuels are then liquid and easily transported and used. This can be conducted near the well-head, minimising the potential for methane leaks.

    Both of these options come with considerable costs.

    With NG, the problem remains that it is a fossil fuel and still contributes to greenhouse warming and disruption of weather. At best, it is a stop-gap, possibly short lived at that.

    Take the fictional estimates of US coal reserves, stated in 1970 as 500 years, but actually less than 100 due to the exponential increase in use. We should expect the same to happen to natural gas, and accelerate as oil wanes.

    Given that the likely timetable for the terminal decline in oil availability is “any time now” and almost certain by 2030, there is really no time left.
    (try googling “the decline of oil 2030″)

    I ask, what chance is there is the Abbott government doing anything to help? Their track record is already appalling.

  • JohnRD

    We should also be looking renewable, low impact, transportable fuels that don’t depend on diverting land to the production of biofuels. (See http://pragmatusj.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/renewable-low-impact-fuels-game-changer.html )
    If you have renewable power you can use existing technology to produce unlimited amounts of liquid ammonia that can be used in existing motors with only minor modifications.
    If you have renewable power you can also use existing technology to produce renewable methanol, gasoline, jet A and a range of other hydrocarbons.
    We ignore these types of fuels at our peril.
    There is a limit to how much direct use of clean electricity (with batteries) can be used directly in the transport industry. It can’t be used for long distance flying or shipping and is not very practical for long haul travel in the more remote parts of Australia.
    Bio-fuel is already pushing up the price of fuel and leading to the destruction of the wild environment. There is not much scope for biofuels to provide a long term answer.

    • Graeme Henchel

      I agree NH3 does look promising. There is an association devoted to the fuel
      http://nh3fuelassociation.org

      This company http://nhthree.com/index.html claims to have developed a method of creating NH3 from air and water using electricity from solar or wind power. When uses in combustion the NH3 releases nitrogen and water? NO CARBON at all. Simply using their method to create NH3 alone would save millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions as the standard method of making Amonia is very energy and carbon intensive. Apparently Amonia for fertilizer is the second most manufactured chemical in the world

  • MrMauricio

    Liquid fuels could be a very dirty word by 2030.Did the NRMA lift there eyes to the future or look around at growing alternatives for transport fuel sources and alternative forms of transport?.They are liquid fuel fixated and are not leading us anywhere but blindly into a dead end.

  • Chris Marshalk

    We really do have Tony Abbott as the Anti-Christ of Green Technology, a backwards thinking, incompetent idiot Government who will not fast track the importance of securing energy needs for it’s own people. Something as simple as supporting the electric Vehicle Car Industry which has HUGE potential (see link below for US “EV” sales), the Governments isn’t doing enough, if anything.

    Yet when it comes to a $6 GP fee is warranted cause they can’t balance the butchery of the budget from their overspending.

    Australia Is SO BEHIND Electric Car sales, it will takes years before we can even catch up to the U.S.A. Source: http://insideevs.com/monthly-plug-in-sales-scorecard/

    – Solar Panels – Need more incentives, increase solar feed-in rates from this bullshit 8c for Victoria.
    – Electric Vehicles – there needs to be advertising and incentives offered by this Gov’t.

    A total of 80 Holden Volts were sold during 2012. Sales in 2013 totaled 101 units. – WHAT A JOKE, I’M DISGUSTED !!!!! Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Volt

    Australia the Rip me off, backwards thinking country where politicians tax us at every possible chance but can’t manage the budget or deliver on policies !!!

  • Mark Frost