31 March – Australia – the country, its resources, Australians, me – if we ever we have a massive natural disaster or disruption as has occurred in Japan, we could be worse off than Japan.

May I explain?

Yes, the physical scale of the Japanese disaster, and the human scale, with many thousands of people killed and whole cities flattened by the earthquake and tsunami, is far greater than that from the recent floods that slowly covered areas of Australia several times larger than all of the island of Honshu where Japan’s tragedy struck

But the biggest problem in Japan is the fuel problem – the lack of it.

“What we urgently need now is fuel, heavy and light oil, water and food. More than anything else, we need fuel because we can’t do anything without it. We can’t stay warm or work the water pumps,” Masao Hara, the mayor of Koriyama city, in Fukushima prefecture said some weeks ago.

And that’s the problem for Australia, too – our lack of fuel.

Both Japan and Australia are utterly dependent on oil and gas to run our cultures.

But when we compare Australia and Japan’s dependency on fuel, our vulnerability is much scarier.

This is so for two reasons.

Firstly, the greater size of Australia – the extensive distances to be travelled by people, fuel, food, emergency services.  The map shows how tiny are the distances in Japan but, without fuel, those distances are huge and it’s taking helicopters and emergency measures to keep people from starving and freezing.

Secondly, the almost complete lack of preparation for fuel shortages here – our governments are so blind to our dependence on fuel compared to Japan that they’ve made us far more vulnerable than we need to be.

Let’s compare Australia and Japan and our vulnerability to fuel shortages:

  • Japan’s main island, where the earthquake and tsunami struck, Honshu, is 1300 kilometres long.  It is 50 to 230 kilometres wide.
  • Australia is incomparably bigger: 4000 km wide east to west and 3700 km from north to south.  It’s close enough to a 1000 km between Brisbane and Sydney, and another 1000 km between Sydney and Melbourne.
  • Japan has 127.5 million people.  Australia has 22 million people.
  • Australia oil consumption is the world’s 20th highest total; we consume 966,200 barrels a day and
  • Australia is the 12th highest electricity consumer of 210 countries
  • Japan is the world’s third highest consumer of oil after US and China, and needs 5.007 million a day and it produces none 
  • Australia has 10 days supply of oil reserves under federal government control.  Japan has 32 days supply of oil reserves.”
  • “. . . The Australian Pipeline Trust, with 9977 km of pipeline, is the largest operator. Epic Energy is the second largest, with 4023 km of pipeline. Santos operates two major domestic pipelines that are used for carrying oil and oil products, which include the Jackson to Brisbane line that spans 804 km, and the Mereenie to Alice Springs line that covers 268 km. Esso Australia Ltd. operates the 185 km Longford to Long Island Point pipeline.

Japan has no oil except that which it imports.

Australia supplies 40 per cent of its oil needs from its own oil reserves but they are “rapidly” running out.

We cold only respond to the recent floods in Queensland, Victoria, WA and NSW because we could get access to fuel supplies or drive the long way around the waters.

If we had a disaster that was sudden, widespread and which knocked out our electricity generating capacity and fuel stockpiles how would we fare compared with Japan?

Here’s a detailed description of what’s just happened in Japan:

Nine of the Japanese refineries were damaged and put out of action, and this dropped the amount of fuel being refined from 4.5 million barrels a day down to 3.1 million. The lack of fuel for transportation affects not only those in the disaster area, but also those away from it, since food and fuel itself depend on transport to move it to customers around the country.

There are several different aspects to the problem; first the oil has to come ashore. With ports closed and unable to re-open for possibly months, shipments from the Middle East, which supply 80% of Japan’s need, have now been curtailed until the situation becomes clearer. Within the country, the Japanese Government has released around 8 million barrels of oil from their strategic reserve. It is also shipping 250,000 barrels of refined product to the area affected by sea (though this runs into the issue of how to get into the ports and distribution network). At Chiba some of the port has been able to re-open but not the terminal that fed to the Cosmo refinery (since that had burned).

By the end of the month it is expected that the recovery will only be to 3.4 million barrels a day although this will still leave the country some 1 million barrels a day short of the refined fuel it needs.

Looking at a map (from Strategic Forecasting, Inc) showing the power plants, and the road layout, the damage to the distribution network with the destruction at Sendai illustrates the problem in gaining access to the damaged area and in sending in new fuel. Food to parts of Ishinomaki has had to be delivered by helicopter, and for a town of 160,000 this is not nearly enough.

And what’s the plan in Australia?

The plan is to make a plan.

The federal agency charged with managing our energy security and fuel reserves spells out its lack of a plan like this:

“Providing secure, affordable and sustainable energy is critical to maintaining Australia’s prosperity.  For this reason the Government is committed to finalising an energy white paper in 2012 . The paper will deliver a clear and robust whole-of-government policy framework to provide certainty for investors as well as reliability and security for the Australian community.  It will be based on a full strategic review across the energy sector to identify emerging needs and plan for the future.”  That’s the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism

My wish is that there are zip fuel reserves near Canberra.  If so, when Australia’s hit with a sudden fuel emergency, such as the one in the 1970s when the Middle East suddenly stopped exporting oil, the authors of our misfortune, those folk sitting on their hands in Canberra, will be in the same parlous situation as the rest of the country.

But, I wonder, have they taken the trouble to make sure that what small reserves of fuel there are can be found a short trip from Canberra?

And a long way from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and the rest of us?

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.
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