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Oil’s well in the white paper’s version of future transport

Much of the recent debate over Australia’s new Energy White Paper deals with climate change, the planned growth of Australia’s coal and gas exports, and the future of electricity sector. And although when…

If you don’t deal with road transport, you’re really not dealing with emissions. Rachel Wray

Much of the recent debate over Australia’s new Energy White Paper deals with climate change, the planned growth of Australia’s coal and gas exports, and the future of electricity sector. And although when most people think of climate change and energy they also think of the transport sector, this new white paper has little to say on the subject.

This lower profile for transport is unfortunate for several reasons. Transport is unusual in its near-total dependence on a single form of energy (oil). The residential and industrial sectors have a greater array of energy sources to potentially meet their needs (such as for lighting, heating, cooling, and powering machinery).

Viable alternative energy sources for motorised transport are also very limited in comparison to other sectors. Indeed, the front-runner is the electric drive system, and it currently relies on electricity from the fossil fuel-dominated national electricity grid.

It’s also worth remembering that transport is largely exempt from the carbon tax.

Normal economic markets cannot resolve these issues. Governments must intervene to address these transport market failures.

Advocates of sustainable transport have identified two major energy issues; both are now widely recognised.

  • Transport’s use of oil makes it one the major sources of national greenhouse gas emissions. It might be possible for Australia for largely de-carbonise its economy by 2050 without any significant contribution from transport, but this would require the remainder of the economy to produce almost no emissions.

  • Future decline in global oil supply will mark an escalation in the cost of oil, with the obvious economic consequences. Australia’s domestic oil production is already drawing to a close; for us, peak oil is unequivocally a reality Australia will be increasingly reliant on oil imports in coming decades. For car-dependent households on lower incomes in particular, the end of cheap oil will add to the costs of mobility. A range of goods and services will also become more expensive as business recover their transport energy costs.

For these issues, the business-as-usual trends are discomforting. The growth rate of our transport greenhouse gas emissions has slowed, but continues to increase with population growth, while our reliance on imported fossil fuels for transport energy continues to increase. What the white paper has to say on these issues, therefore, is central to the sustainable transport debate.

Unfortunately, the white paper’s interest in climate change and peak oil might be charitably described as modest.

By a stroke of policy partitioning, the white paper leaves climate change to the climate change policies and offers little support for them. Given that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is primarily an energy policy issue, there is an obvious problem when the nation’s energy and climate change policies don’t sing from the same song sheet.

The white paper continues with the approach of the last national policy on energy security and proposes that the international oil market will continue to meet Australia’s needs. On this point, the white paper holds that these supplies are “mature, diverse, and reliable”, so that the domestic markets are “functioning efficiently and effectively and are well placed to meet future needs”. No “resource constraints” are expected to “at least 2035”. Rising demand for fuels will be partly offset by improving engine technologies and increasing use of alternative fuels.

So what does the white paper propose to do about liquid fuels? Three broad actions are offered:

  • Continue to “monitor developments in the global liquid fuel market”.

  • Work with industry and the Alternative Transport Fuels Implementation Advisory Group that takes “a market-led approach to the development and deployment of alternative transport fuels”.

  • Develop a “more consistent long-term policy framework for liquid fuels so as to promote stability and certainty for future investment”. The first step is a Productivity Commission review on fuel excise and its possible replacement by a carbon-and energy-content based system.

There are also a set of actions relating to monitoring and assessment.

Clearly, these policies will add little to the nation’s efforts to reduce transport emissions or address oil energy security. Australia’s energy policy and climate change policy are seemingly pulling in different directions and nowhere is this clearer than in the transport sector.

Australia’s Federal Government has invested considerably in alternative transport energy research and policy development, but few of these outputs inform the white paper. And there are signs of differences in outlook; while climate change policy features the carbon tax and government intervention in markets, the energy white paper works with prevailing market activities and values.

This outcome points to a deeper and persistent schism in Australian politics. National resource and economic policy is being governed though essentially free-market policies while environmental policy is based in more regulatory and market-interventionist approaches.

Australia’s last energy white paper was from the Howard government in 2004. Advocates of sustainable transport were concerned about that policy’s failure to acknowledge the problem of peak oil, its technological optimism, and its failure to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. Much of this criticism was sheeted home to that government’s scepticism over climate change and its boosterish attitude towards reaping the benefits from the nation’s energy exports.

Under the Gillard government, climate change is recognised as a major policy challenge for Australia. But this seems to have little impact on that government’s view of the future of transport. Those market forces that have served to direct the path of our transport sector to date have been entrusted with its future; this has been facilitated and supported by Federal Government policy. And it is not good news for either our emissions, or reducing our dependence on expensive oil.

Join the conversation

20 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    I don't share the wishful thinking that electric vehicles will increasingly rule the roads. I think internal combustion cars will get smaller and lighter and be driven less. They will be $10k cheaper than electric vehicles. At a guess I'd say 10 Mt of natural gas could be used as vehicle fuel, with current non-transport domestic demand and exports both about 20 Mt. Long haul trucks can fill cryogenic LNG tanks at the depot.

    I wonder also if expensive oil could drag coal burning down with it. High priced diesel for trucks and locomotives could put the kibosh on new coal fields like Alpha. By 'expensive' I mean relatively affordable in the sense that oil (West Texas price) may stay under $100 a barrel but world GDP may be flat.

    In general I think energy outlook papers gives too much credence to improbables like ubiquitous EVs, geothermal and CCS and not enough to real possibilities like gas fuelled transport and nuclear.

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    1. Leo Kerr

      Consultant

      In reply to John Newlands

      @ James Bush - Manfred's articles must have been written quite some time ago - for example his assertions are based on lead acid battery technology for electric cars "And that's considering lead-acid batteries, which are the least expensive of all available options! They are heavy, use nasty sulfuric acid, and so some electric car makers are tempted to use better battery technology, such as one of several nickel chemistries, or even lithium." Or even lithium!!!!! shows how dated this is.
      - he also…

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    There is an interesting article here on traffic congestion, which must also correlate to fuel consumption.

    http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14407&page=1

    Despite billions already spent (and billions planned), the amount of traffic on the roads is likely to get worse, and traffic congestion and rate of fuel consumption is also likely to get worse.

    The simple equation for Australia is: more immigration = bigger cities = more cars = more congestion = more fuel consumption = more greenhouse emissions = more pollution = more public debt paying for road transport systems = more dependency on other countries for fuel = other countries then have us over a barrel because we are so dependant on them.

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  3. Michael Brown

    Professional & academic

    We've been hearing about peak oil for years - the most recent analysis from Harvard shows it is as far away as ever and there's more risk of oversupply and a price collapse
    http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/22145/new_study_by_harvard_kennedy_school_researcher_forecasts_sharp_increase_in_world_oil_production_capacity_and_risk_of_price_collapse.html
    Energy security has always been a big driver of the search for alternatives in both the US and Europe. We can expect a drop in interest now.

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    1. Michael Lardelli

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Brown

      Michael Brown, If you want to know just how embarrassingly faulty is Maugeri's analysis then look at David Strahan's article "Oil Glut Forecaster Maugeri Admits Duff Maths":

      http://www.davidstrahan.com/blog/?p=1570

      It will make you cringe! If, as a company director, you are basing your future view of oil availability on analyses like Maugeri's then you are doing your company a severe disservice.

      Just wait until there is a conflict in the Persian Gulf to watch Singapore's supplies of refined oil to Australia dry up and then we will see an energy crisis in this nation like we have never seen before. The public will not forgive the politicians who have allowed free-market complacency to leave us so unprepared.

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  4. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    Transport policy isn't just about how to get from A to B, but when and why you want to get to B at all, rather than C, D or E. And indeed, why you're at A in the first place. That is, town planning has to be central to any discussion of transport.

    New urbanism, population density, public transport, electric rail links, cultural expectations about interstate and international travel: these are all relevant topics for a white paper on energy as well.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Byron Smith

      It’s too late. The town planning and town design has already occurred, and much of it is inefficient, and it would cost mega trillions to change it all.

      Not enough money could ever be raised through rates or taxes or fees to fix it.

      The only way out is to stabilise or reduce the population.

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    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Dale Bloom: "Not enough money could ever be raised through rates or taxes or fees to fix it." If we got really desperate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcology

      I reckon, if we replaced Canberra with one of those, we might be able to put the sheep station back.

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  5. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    What are the alternatives to oil and fossil-fuel-driven electricity that the white paper could have proposed?

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    1. Zvyozdochka

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Biofuels? Or http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2012/fueling-the-fleet-navy-looks-to-the-seas

      They could be imposing low acceleration capability standards on trucks, more monitoring/training of drivers. Hybrid small trucks. More intelligent dispatch software. More intelligent flight descent timing/control. Stop destroying the existing medium speed and regional rail networks. A fast train between Bris-Syd-Can-Mel.

      Honestly, there are so many ideas.

      There are electrification schemes for container transport. For example, here in WA it has been long proposed that rather than running road trucks between Fremantle and Kewdale/Cockburn, it should be done with an electricified light-rail like container transport system.

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  6. Comment removed by moderator.

  7. SUSTAINABLE POPULATION PARTY

    Written & authorised by William Bourke, Sydney

    A good, common sense article that deserves to be widely read, and acted upon. But of course we will get a deafening silence from our hopelessly conflicted federal parliamentary parties.

    This sums it up nicely:
    "For these issues, the business-as-usual trends are discomforting. The growth rate of our transport greenhouse gas emissions has slowed, but continues to increase with population growth, while our reliance on imported fossil fuels for transport energy continues to increase... Australia’s energy policy and climate change policy are seemingly pulling in different directions and nowhere is this clearer than in the transport sector."

    A stable population will, among many other positive things: Protect energy security; Minimise urban sprawl; Help lower carbon emissions; Help ensure a more sustainable use of the Earth’s resources. The list goes on and on.

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    1. Michael Lardelli

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to SUSTAINABLE POPULATION PARTY

      I back the call for a stable population in Australia. It is ridiculous to increase the number of consumers when the supply of resources such as oil is already declining. (e.g. oil available on the international oil export market has been declining since 2006).

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    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to SUSTAINABLE POPULATION PARTY

      I think you're being overly optimistic. We need to do far more than stabilise population.

      My own amateur guess, based purely on observations from my limited perspective, is that we passed the limit of sustainable population around the middle of last century. Conditions will continue to deteriorate while populations remain above that level.

      The question is whether we exercise some control over the decrease in population or let nature take its course.

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    3. SUSTAINABLE POPULATION PARTY

      Written & authorised by William Bourke, Sydney

      In reply to SUSTAINABLE POPULATION PARTY

      @David, I don't see anyone here saying that a stable population is the whole solution. I agree with you we need to do far more, but a stable population is a necessary priority so that other action by individuals and societies to reduce their environmental impact is meaningful.

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  8. Jenny Goldie

    population and climate activist

    Stabilising population is essential but will not solve the impending oil crisis in itself; only make it easier to cope. The White Paper assumes we will be able to import oil when we need to but there's no guarantee we can get ahead of the queue for ever-dwindling supplies on the world market. But the growing nexus between energy and climate change must be addressed. The IEA said recently we may have to keep two thirds of fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to keep within the two degree global warming guardrail. Thus the only solution to our transport problems is to electrify cars, trams etc (fuelled by renewable energy ideally) and if possible develop algae for biofuel to run our trucks. There seems to be some studies that show the latter is viable. Let's hope so - otherwise the economy may collapse around collapsing oil supplies.

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  9. peter mackenzie

    Transport Researcher

    Leigh’s item well complements “Wean Transport off Fossil Fuels or Grind to a Halt”, by Prof Nicholas Low, also on The Conversation recently – and many other items telling us that the nation is well on the road to a transport crisis – maybe we are there already and just don’t recognize it.

    In fact there is a wealth of information telling the community, government and industry that Australia transport direction is clearly moving in the wrong direction. Not just in energy/fuel use and related…

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  10. Comment removed by moderator.