FARMERS would feel the sharp end of a national liquid fuel supply shortage that would rapidly impact food security; including hurting consumers in big cities like Sydney and Melbourne.
That’s the view of former National Farmers Federation (NFF) President Graham Blight who has engaged in a sustained campaign to awaken governments about the urgent need to act on a comprehensive national fuel supply plan.
The former National Roads and Motorists' Association director said he’d spent the past three and a half years calling for a strategic solution in holding talks with senior government agencies and officials.
That conversation continued this week in Canberra including discussions with regional politicians who he said clearly understood the more salient impacts a fuel supply shock would have on agricultural production and their communities.
Mr Blight said a recent report investigated the government energy policies of other developed countries but found Australia was the only jurisdiction with no “Plan B” to manage a major supply “hiccup”.
He said that scenario was more alarming given Australia currently imported 91 per cent of its liquid fuel stocks to keep the wheels of industry, society and food supply turning.
Mr Blight said having a strategic plan to tackle a national fuel supply shortage impacted every farmer and every citizen “one way or the other”.
“It has happened already in Western Victoria where fuel supply has run-out in the middle of harvest,” he said.
“If farmers can’t complete their harvest in time because there’s no fuel supply and they can’t transport products to market, consumers also suffer.
“Having a comprehensive and strategic energy policy goes to the heart of food security.”
Mr Blight said if fuel imports ceased immediately, supermarket food supplies would be depleted within seven days and petrol stations would run dry in three days.
“A lot of farmers would have some fuel on their properties to keep them going for a while but ultimately, like the rest of the nation that supply would eventually run out,” he said.
Mr Blight said federal Departments central to the issue - Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Industry, Defence and Environment - had traditionally worked in “silos” on fuel supply policy.
But he said those agencies were starting to work more cohesively; especially given they are unable to measure exactly how long the domestic fuel supply would last, if imports suddenly stopped.
Despite not having responded to a Senate inquiry report handed down in June last year on fuel supply policy, governments seemed more enlivened to calls for action, he said.
“Successive governments have avoided it and both sides of the House are to blame for doing nothing,” he said.
“This is too important to be a political issue - but we’re pleased everyone is starting to take more notice now and get it.
“We’re asking the government - not just one isolated department - to develop a comprehensive broad ranging national fuel mobility policy, with a view to having a sustainable and secure fuel supply.”
Mr Blight said the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry into Australia's transport energy resilience and sustainability failed to say how long Australia’s current fuel stocks would last, if supply ended, which “started the alarm bells ringing”.
The investigation was chaired by former truck driver and WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle and found that - under current projections - Australia may average below 45 days of fuel reserves by 2024.
The report recommended the Australian government undertake a comprehensive whole-of-government risk assessment of Australia's fuel supply, availability and vulnerability.
“The assessment should consider the vulnerabilities in Australia's fuel supply to possible disruptions resulting from military actions, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, industrial accidents and financial and other structural dislocation,” it said.
It also recommended compulsory reporting by fuel supply companies of their stocks and a comprehensive transport energy plan, with targets.
In its submission to the inquiry, the NFF said two core principles needed to be understood by government when dealing with fuel security.
“Australian agriculture needs access to affordable and secure fuel supplies in order maintain its ability to produce food and fibre for Australia and international markets,” NFF deputy CEO Tony Mahar said.
“Supporting infrastructure must be in place to ensure the efficient and uninterrupted distribution of fuel supplies to agricultural production centres.”
While mostly agreeing with the Committee’s views, a separate conclusion form the Australian Greens said any strategic plan should set targets for a secure zero carbon supply of Australia's transport energy and outline a transition to that goal, over the next two decades.
Mr Blight said locally produced biofuels and renewable energy options like solar also needed to be considered to improve domestic fuel supply but also supported farmers.
He said if produced in regional areas, options like biofuels can boost economic activity and deliver alternative revenue streams for producers while helping to overcome any local fuel supply shortages, if crisis erupted.
The report said one of the central questions before the Committee was whether reliance on the market was the best course of action in relation to energy security which Caltex and other fuel supply companies “contend that it is”.
But it said others - most notably NRMA and Engineers Australia - argued that Australia's growing reliance on imported oil, together with declining refining capacity, warranted a comprehensive review of Australia's fuel security into the future.
“Noting that Australia is at the bottom of a long supply chain, the committee was repeatedly reminded of the vulnerabilities to the supply chain,” it said.
“In light of its growing dependence on fuel imports, the committee questions whether leaving Australia's energy security to market forces remains the most feasible and tenable policy approach.
“Ultimately, it is not the role of the fuel supply companies to ensure that Australia has adequate reserves - that is a matter for government.”