25/06/2008 - 22:00

Gas fallout shows no man is an island

25/06/2008 - 22:00


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At some time or other - probably at a dinner party - most of us have been asked the question about which 10 people you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

At some time or other - probably at a dinner party - most of us have been asked the question about which 10 people you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island. In my experience, the number one answer is a boat builder with a niche expertise in working with palm trees.

It's one of those fun subjects that often moves on to embrace the bigger philosophical issues - like what skills or backgrounds would be needed to colonise another world.

Clearly a criminal conviction was viewed as a necessity by the English authorities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The late Douglas Adams, whom I was privileged to hear speak many years ago at London's Royal Geographical Society, explored this idea in his amusing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

Mr Adams wrote about how the leaders of a planetary exodus decided to leave many of their superfluous citizens behind, such as telephone sanitisers - only find their newly formed colony was wiped out by a disease transmitted by communal use of telephones.

So what has this got to do anything, I hear you ask?

For the past three weeks, Western Australia has experienced gas shortages due to the rupture of a gas pipeline on Varanus Island.

In the days after the rupture, the state government released its guidelines on gas prioritisation under these circumstances.

At the moment, from what I can tell, most of the top priority area's gas or power needs are being met, leaving industry to bear the brunt of the problem.

Just how gas is being allocated would be interesting to note. We already have complaints from industry about the fickle nature of supplies and lack of notice, so perhaps it would help us all to understand how scarce supplies are being distributed.

This issue may become more acute, not less, as Verve Energy fires up more coal-fuelled power stations and the North West Shelf continues to add gas to the network.

As time drags on, those being left without will diminish, but, by definition, their need will be the most protracted, and therefore have the most potential long-term damage in a business sense.

There is also the issue of the supply chain.

There's no point in powering a gold mining operation if they can't get the explosives or cyanide required for their mining and processing. Both those latter inputs have gas as a raw material.

So it's very much like the desert island analogy, except a very intricate understanding of the WA economy is needed to get it right. Being a free-market person, I'd generally say commercial considerations should take precedence.

Then again, I'm not sure the other people I want on my island are those with the biggest bank balance - no boat builder among them.

The government must also be very careful about its leadership in this. My desert island analogy might sound trite but a real example is the debacle of the Murray-Darling river system.

There, commercial considerations and government inaction are letting a national icon die. That ought to be considered as we watch the response to this gas crisis from all concerned.

Wrong direction on solar

There is no way that I think solar energy would be a solution to this gas crisis, but I do think solar has a vital place in WA's future - just because of the amount of sun we receive.

It's a long-term project and it will require investment, but it's amazing how quickly technology can change things.

In 1987, anyone who had a mobile phone was basically considered a wanker, someone who thought they were so important they couldn't possibly be out of touch for minute.

By 1997, phones had become cheap enough that people like me could make the business case for owning one.

By 2007, most Australians have one, and they are so cheap kids communicate with each other across classrooms.

Demand from the rich funded development and led to phones becoming smaller, cheaper and more useful. In other words, consumers - starting with the most well off - funded the R&D that we all benefit from now.

The same could be said for household solar energy systems. That's why I am surprised that the federal government decided to means test rebates. It's the rich who will fund the research and development for the next generation of these devices.

Yes, I know the rich didn't get rebates for their early mobile phones, but there is an inherent difference. With phones, the rich thought they needed them, even if they were just a status symbol.

With solar energy, rich people can afford the alternative. They are simply opting for solar because they want to change things.

There is a very big difference between a need and a want, and before it acted the government ought to have recognised how important this is to our future - especially as we see what happens when other forms of energy fail.


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