Transport fuel: Tasmania’s Achilles heel

Tasmania, fully reliant on imported oil, needs to look for alternatives sooner rather than later. [6 January 2009 | Peter Boyer]

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

These words of the great American environmental philosopher Henry David Thoreau ring especially true when we think about the cost of oil.

Oil has given us so much. These days, besides fuel for transport and other machines, virtually everything around us, everything we use in home and workplace, is in whole or part derived from mineral oil. More than anything, it’s the technological driver of our modern world.

We know how much money it costs per barrel to buy oil, and that its price has a habit of rising when least expected. But the amount of life we exchange for it in the long run, as Thoreau would have it, is something else altogether.

Most of us in developed countries today are too young to know what it’s like to live without a rapid transport system based on cheap, freely-flowing mineral oil. I certainly don’t. I can imagine being without cars or aeroplanes, but I don’t know. Maybe one day, if I live long enough, I will.

It all comes down to cost. Think about a litre of fuel – just enough to fill a milk carton. That litre contains enough energy to propel your average family car up hill and down dale for more than 10 kilometres.

Think about pushing your car that far, if you can manage such a feat, and consider how long it would take and how much of your energy would be spent doing it. Consider that one litre of petrol would shift the same burden many times faster than our puny bodies could possibly manage.

And then consider how much we pay at the bowser for that amount of energy. We complain when we’re asked to pay $1.50. That’s $1.50 for enough energy to propel our car 10 kilometres or more, doing a task that would take a single strong human, at best, days to achieve. Cheap labour, wouldn’t you say?

At that price, energy so concentrated, so powerful, so portable is clearly under-valued. Here in Tasmania we should be especially alert to this, because we stand to pay a very heavy price when the world runs short of oil – unless we can prepare ourselves ahead of time.

Heavily-reliant on imported mineral oil, having none of its own, Tasmania might look for an alternative in biofuels produced from plant matter – waste from agricultural or forestry production, for instance. But brick walls loom uncomfortably close.

Today’s generation of biofuels cannot be carbon-neutral as is often claimed. Energy is needed to plant, tend and harvest the crop wherever it is grown, and if it replaces mature forest, many times the carbon dioxide it saves in replacing fossil fuel is lost in the clearing of the forest.

Fast-growing plants including grasses grown on marginal agricultural land may be of short-term value, but remember, we are going to need all the arable land we can spare, including some marginal land, for food production.

For Tasmania the best biofuel prospect is surely in the waters lapping our long coastline. The idea isn’t lost on other countries, including China and Japan, where public-private consortia are investing heavily in cultivating kelp offshore for biofuel production. One very attractive aspect of such schemes is that this crop needs no fresh water.

Whichever way we turn, however, we’re stuck with the uncomfortable fact that our lifestyles consume a lot more energy than our natural environment can sustain. We have only one planet. We need to stop living as if we have two.

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