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Food, Fuel and Famine

Comment piece by Mike Malloy.

For thousands of years, humans have dreamed of finding a way to escape the Rule of Famine. In the second half of the 20th century, they thought that they had found the secret. Stored solar energy in the form of petroleum oil was the elixir. For a few generations, the dream seemed to have come true. Population numbers climbed as never before. Invention blossomed as humans played with the new toy. The shape of civilisation and everyday technology changed. Famine seemed to have lost its grip. However, the real cost of fuel climbed steadily and remorselessly as population numbers bloomed and oil supplies remained steady. Predictions of oil depletion increased in volume and number. The predicted date for final exhaustion dropped from the 2070s to the 2040s. The Age of Oil seemed destined to last less than a century and to terminate in a painful, monster famine, wiping out billions of people. A defence screen could be attempted, but success is not assured. To their lasting shame, politicians simply looked the other way, and continue to do so. Even basic research has been by-passed.

We now live in the 21st century – crunch time. Generations have now grown up in a world where powered vehicles are just part of the environment. The gasoline and diesel that power them are of interest only when the tank runs down and demands replenishment. Vehicles are of passing interest, but only as units in traffic congestion and as parts of a brand and age class. Habituation has consigned both vehicles and fuel to the back room of consciousness and left no room for the handling of the run-down and disappearance of oil. That is not perceived as a disaster. Natural disasters are something to which humans must adapt. However, they relate to incidents such as plagues, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves and floods. They do not cover man-made disasters. In other words, perception acts against survival in a world bereft of one of life’s props.

A critical factor in addressing the problem of supplying a substitute for disappearing oil supplies is scale. NZ uses about 6750 million litres of petroleum products per annum. That requires a great deal of replacement. It wipes out most “good ideas” for substitutes. To be useful, any substitute must fit two limiting factors: available land and existing knowhow. Of these issues, the most difficult to deal with is land use. 

A  first class SOE report on a strategy to introduce a national programme of high country afforestation for energy purposes in 2007 has been ignored. Time has gone by with virtually nothing to show for it. We now have a mere 19 years within which to carry out basic research and to implement something like the Scion programme. What is now needed is a crash course of planting trees on a best guess basis to the maximum extent possible and amend it as research findings come to hand. Parallel to these steps will be the raising of capital, the design and location of a processing plant or plants, and the construction of the plant or plants. When coupled with the need to convince Parliament of the need and urgency of the work, NZ faces a seemingly impossible task.

The conclusion is stark. No matter how effective intervention may be, it can only mitigate the disastrous effects of losing cheap oil as the mainstay of the economies of nation-states. Famine on an unprecedented scale will return. It will garner an enormous death toll. Its victims will, as always, be the world’s poor. Where will famine reign supreme? There are a number of answers. The sizes of domestic food production and domestic population density will be the first determinants. Also relevant will be the capacity of leadership to handle public debt. Its magnitude will attract public scrutiny. Leaders who cannot display competence in its management under stress will fail to attract new loans. The cheapness of petroleum oil as a prop for national economies will never return because energy comes only from the sun, and its earth store can only be replenished through a very limited number of resources, including the management of forest leaves.  Transport will necessarily be expensive because fuel will become a capital-intensive commodity. Only those states displaying marked efficiency will survive, let alone dominate world affairs.

To have any hope of surviving the run-down of oil unscathed, NZ should be in a position to process significant volumes of biomass fuels by 2030. If Hubbert’s (19) prediction of oil run-down are not borne out by 2030, that year still retains its importance. The more NZ is able to produce DIY fuels by that time, the sooner it will be able to reduce carbon emissions from oil feedstocks. Nineteen years remains a fixed time constraint under any scenario. Within that period, an action plan for a New Zealand DIY scheme to yield transport fuels will need to be operating. Some of its critical components must be:

  • Discussions between the Government and Federated Farmers will be needed to ensure that landowners are willing to plant EP land in short term and long term tree species and that Government is willing to fund such plantings at an agreed level;
  • Government should establish a pilot plant capable of processing wood waste, used tyres and water weed sustainably into methanol for research and use;
  • Nurseries and forestry consultants will need to be briefed and be able to handle biomass planting at updated Scion levels;
  • A co-operative planters’ company needs to be put in place; 
  • Loggers will require to be briefed in order to be able to handle harvesting in time;
  • Water-based and land-based transport firms need to be briefed in advance of decisions on processing; 
  • The economics of land- versus water- based transport for processing and distribution need to be worked out;
  • A site at Gisborne should be designated as the primary site for a production processing plant capable of converting wood and wastes into methanol;
  • Local bodies will need to be briefed on the location of woodlot establishments, processing plants and transport traffic;
  • Research into the engineering of mining methane hydrates in the Hikurangi margin for on-shore liquid fuel processing should be carried out;
  • The design of processing plant(s) should be completed and approved by concerned local bodies;
  • A processing company needs to be incorporated (say, Forest Fuels Limited, or FFL);
  • FFL should be structured so that the majority of voting shares are held by the Grower Co-operative and processing plant(s) are owned by FFL;
  • Extraneous capital for FFL will need to be found and under its Articles of Association attract dividends at the rate enjoyed by the holder of voting shares;
  • The dominant position of the Grower Co-operative in FFL and the dividend rights attaching to extraneous shares should be entrenched by Act of Parliament;
  • Processing plant(s) will need to be constructed in time for the initial takeover of biomass fuels;
  • A public relations plan must be implemented to inform the public of relevant information on changing patterns of transport.

Explosive power represented man’s habit of taking whatever he needed from his environment. If it was environment friendly, that happened solely by accident. Electric power from methanol is essentially environment friendly but capital intensive. Its corollary  that the end price of motive power must increase has its counterpart – increased wealth in a changed economic structure. The increased costs of planting trees, managing steep sites, transporting raw materials, processing raw material and distributing and selling finished methanol represent:

  1. Income in the hands of recipients;
  2. New products in the market place;
  3. New opportunities to develop the production of methanol-base products, including new products,
  4. Safer motor vehicles through reduced risk of fire;
  5. An expanded industrial base for NZ;
  6. Potential for new industries in NZ;
  7. A sustainable base for the creation of wealth;
  8. An expanded tax base for Government.

Methanol is an alcohol. It is poisonous and can lead to blindness and death if ingested in quantity. For this reason, it is not a drug of potential addiction. It is worth noting that working with, rather than against, the environment can lead to increased wealth and no clear risk of death arising from alcoholic excess.

The full essay is available for download, 39 pages pdf 240kb.

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