News | 18th Aug, 2005

The rising cost of our oil addiction

Thursday, 18 August 2005

Soaring fuel prices bite the average Victorians weekly budget hard. Since the cost of petrol hit all time highs this month, the average family has been coughing up $5 more a week for their 35 litres of fuel.

But we’d better get used to it.

Industry experts are in no doubt that worldwide production of oil will peak before long, when demand will outstrip supply. Some geologists think the globe has only a decade before we run out of cheap oil while others believe oil is in the process of peaking.

The most optimistic prediction is by the US energy department, which envisages oil will peak around 2037.

The fact is, oil will decline. Demand will not. Discovery of new reserves peaked in the 1960s and we currently use four times as much oil as we find.

The effects of this oil peak will be felt not just in our weekly budget, but from food prices, to tourism and unemployment. Some commentators have even speculated that the prospects for severe economic impacts are higher than anytime since the oil crisis of 1973.

Therefore now is the time to move beyond oil.

Rather than living in denial, refusing to admit that the resource on which we have structured our lives is shrinking, we must develop substitutes.

In the end, we will have no choice.

Finding abundant and cheap alternatives to petrol and diesel fuels, however, is not a simple task.

For example, if all of Australia’s current wheat production were converted to ethanol, it would total less than 10 per cent of our fuel needs.

Hydrogen requires big amounts of energy for its manufacture and distribution – most likely to continue coming from petroleum sources for some years yet.

Hybrid cars – which have a conventional petrol engine, as well as an electric motor run from batteries charged by the car itself – are the best available technology. However there are just three hybrid models on the market with each using about five litres of petrol per 100km – less than half the amount of larger cars. But hybrids are not enough on their own and are just a small part of the solution.

The best response in dealing with the demise of oil – and one which is cheap and easily available – is public transport, walking and cycling.

It seems almost daft to make such a simple suggestion, but the importance of these travel alternatives cannot be overstated, not just in terms of oil demand, but also human and environmental health.

And as far as Victorians are concerned, now is the perfect time to be pushing for more and better public transport.

In the next weeks it is expected the Bracks Government will be releasing its Metropolitan Travel Plan. 

A key part of the Melbourne 2030 project, it will provide a blueprint for the future of Melbourne’s entire transport network, from freight to bikes, buses and trams.

Environment Victoria believes it is crucial the Plan meets community needs, that public transport be safe, affordable, easily accessible and frequent.

Inner suburban Melburnians often opt for cars after being frustrated by slow and infrequent services. Those on the outer suburban fringe, particularly low income residents, have poor transport services and therefore little or no choice but to rely on cars to get around.

If we are to move from an oil-dependent society, the State Government must tackle and solve these public transport concerns.

This applies equally to the national transport infrastructure.

In June the Federal Government is expected to release the billion-dollar, five-year Auslink project, which will make road and rail transport more efficient.

At the moment, Australian Governments consistently provide higher subsidies to car use than to public transport.

Research by Australian academics, Newman and Kenworthy, shows ‘the total costs of the car transport system exceed transit system costs by 30 to 40 per cent and are not paid for by users’.

Even Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson recently raised the prospect that petrol prices could stay permanently high, warning that Australia should look at developing alternative fuels.

The Federal Government therefore must also tackle and solve public transport problems if we are going to have a smooth transition to an oil-sparse world.

The fact that fat kills four times as many Victorians as traffic accidents – as reported in the Herald Sun (May 18) – should force an even swifter switch to travel alternatives.

Add to this lethal cauldron a few thousand tonnes of greenhouse emissions from transport, and we have a toxic brew. Road transport makes up 34 per cent of a household’s emissions. Because we are driving more and further each year, Australian emissions have grown by 27 per cent since 1990.

So our sedentary, obese lifestyles may well kill us before global warming and pollution does.

There is no cheap, abundant and easy replacement for oil so using less has to be the urgent and immediate priority.

By speeding up the shift to sustainable public transport we can reduce the widespread impact of oil shortages, while improving our own health and that of the environment.