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Oil price rising, how surprising

This piece was published today on Crikey's daily email. Also see my media release from this morning on the issue.

I have to confess myself quite flabbergasted by the extent to which our governments, oppositions, economists, planners and media claim to have been caught unawares by the rocketing global oil price and imply that no one could have seen it coming.

Not that I am surprised by their position – after all, they rely on ABARE. I have challenged ABARE at every Estimates hearing for two years and more as to their long-term estimates of oil price, and got the same answer each time - $40-45. Even as the price hit $100 early this year, they stuck firm to their projection. And yet ABARE continues to command more respect than the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), which has been spot on in its forecasts.

But, just as the reality of climate change is only now sinking in, years after the science was settled and the urgency unquestionable, no-one can truly claim that they weren’t warned about peak oil.

One of my first actions after being elected to the Senate was to instigate a Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Future Oil Supply and Alternative Transport Fuels. In this Inquiry, everyone from Iranian oil guru, Dr Bakhtiari, to public transport groups, to the Councils of Western Sydney, to ASPO and many more, were all calling for the same thing: a rapid shift to mass transit, higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards, an end to the Fringe Benefits tax concession on motor vehicles and accelerated R&D into second generation biofuels.

The Inquiry’s conclusion which was tabled well over a year ago, involved Liberal, Labor and Greens in a consensus report making all these key recommendations. Then the old parties buried it. But, just as geosequestered CO2 will, it is now bubbling to the surface.

A few months later, I released a major publication, Re-Energising Australia, which presented a comprehensive policy platform to deal with the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil and build a better, cleaner, cleverer Australia. The considerable discussion this report garnered means it cannot have completely passed everyone by.

During last year’s election campaign, and as oil passed $100 early this year, I and many others repeatedly called for action to deal with peak oil and climate change together. And then, in my Budget Reply last week, I started with a reference to dwindling oil supplies matching the threat of Arctic Ice melt, and repeated my calls made in the 2006 Budget Reply, to use the surplus to oil-proof Australia.

The Prime Minister cannot legitimately say he has done all he can when he is making decisions now that will make the situation worse. Last week’s Budget allocated to rail a tiny 5% of what was given to roads in the next year. $78 million on metro public transport is whistling in the wind. The much-vaunted Green Car program doesn’t even start until 2011, after the next election. Infrastructure Australia and the Building Australia Fund only have to consider climate change at the discretion of the Minister and peak oil not at all.

To suggest that a price-watch program is all he can do, whilst waiting for Martin Ferguson’s energy security plan, is disingenuous. Particularly given that leaving the Minister for Coal in charge of resource planning is letting the cat guard the cream. Ferguson is already talking up liquefying coal to make a hugely polluting transport fuel.

As the Senate Inquiry said, no plan for peak oil should make climate change worse, yet this is precisely what the Rudd Government is on track to do, with the support of the Coalition, who want to exclude transport from the effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

What about mandatory vehicle fuel efficiency standards and ending the fringe benefits tax concession for vehicles? What about tying subsidies to car manufacturers to increased efficiency? What about an immediate multi-billion dollar investment into mass transit, cycleways and redesigning cities?

The great thing about climate change and peak oil is that the solutions are the same for both, and that these solutions will lead to a better quality of life in cities, better air quality, a healthier population and a more connected community. The re-design of cities will see more walkways, bicycle paths and localism as we move to urban villages linked by rapid mass transit, and as we encourage businesses to take their jobs to where the people are. It’s a chance to get off the treadmill if we embrace it.

As Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. Those who now finally realise what we are facing should involve the people who saw the problem coming and listen to the solutions that we have advocated. Only then can we sweep aside the failure of imagination and the refusal to leave the fossil fuel age, and get on with building the post-carbon world.

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