Our greatest addiction

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It burns down like cigarettes. Our car exhausts exhaling fumes that are cancer to our planet. We are addicted to fuel. We are hooked on the speed and distance that modern technology has delivered in the shape of the automobile. Yet, our heads are stuck in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the obvious.

Fossil fuels are non-renewable. At some point in the future our oil and gas reserves will be exhausted. It is an unremarkable statement, if not for the complete lack of acknowledgement by our society of this fact.

The energy industry is recognising the issues better than most. At the 2004 World Energy Congress in Sydney, Buford Lewis, Exxon Mobil's manager for fuels development, acknowledged that unless we made significant steps in fuel efficiency that we would run out of oil before the middle of this century. That is less than fifty years away. It is within many of our lifetimes.

Iranian oil expert, Dr Samsam Bakhtiari, visited Australia this year and suggested that within a few years, petrol prices of $3 to $4 dollars a litre could be expected. His forecast is that between 2006 and 2007 oil supply will begin to decrease.

Energy companies understand better than most that fossil fuels will one day run dry. If they are to remain viable businesses they must come up with alternatives. Despite this, we continue to consume more oil and accelerate towards the inevitable.

The head in the sand mentality is common for addicts. But our addiction to fuel is complex and woven into all aspects of our life. We have built our social and political infrastructures around the ability to travel extraordinary distances. Families now live thousands of kilometres apart and cheap petrol makes visits possible. Our food and services are delivered to us thanks to the energy generated by the combustion engine.

The fact that the scenarios proposed in the 1972 Limits to Growth document from the Club of Rome have not materialised has perhaps contributed to our complacency. Dr Bakhtiari says a doomsday scenario is unlikely anyway. Any decent supply-demand graph demonstrates that price will reduce demand and deliver a slower reduction in
supply. Our withdrawal from our addiction will be slow as prices begin to rise.

If we do accept that in fifty or a hundred years time we will not have the energy reserves to run petrol driven vehicles we have some serious decisions to make. Strategic planners and policy makers need to start addressing the transformation of our society into one that travels less.

We can not afford to continue to spend billions on road and transport infrastructure that will be useless to future generations. Much of that money needs to be re-invested into exploring alternatives. Australia should look to the Western Australian government for guidance. Back in 2002 they commissioned an oil vulnerability report
to inform their Sustainability Strategy. It states that in a couple of decades it will cost $300 – $400 dollars to fill the family car; proposing no nonsense strategies to deal with the impending problem.

This is not a disaster waiting to happen; it is a challenge that confronts us.

With a reasoned and strategic realignment we can enjoy the benefits of oil for a long time to come. It will involve changing many small things and Australia will be a different place. But, if we continue to pretend it isn't an issue, we could find ourselves in a rather uncomfortable cold turkey withdrawal.

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