MIKE SCRAFTON. The shallowness of Australia’s strategic policy

Oct 15, 2019

Two largely neglected issues highlight the paucity of Australia’s strategic policy; energy and global warming

According to the Department of the Environment and Energy’s (DEE) Liquid Fuel Security Review-Interim Report (April 2019) the rate at which Australia’s proven oil reserves are being depleted has been out-pacing new discoveries since 2000. 90 per cent of Australia’s liquid fuel requirements are sourced from overseas; mostly from refineries in Asia that rely on crude imports from the Middle East. ‘Over 40 per cent of Australia liquid fuel originates in the Middle East’.

Australia has been slower than most nations to transition to other transport energy sources. Projections show that Australia’s demand will grow but ‘global oil demand will peak in 2030 and plateau before a gradual decline starting around 2040’ as other energy sources enter the market. Unless Australia keeps pace with global trends it will be ‘left behind with ageing infrastructure and potentially more limited supply of oil’.

As of the end of 2018 Australia held onshore sufficient reserves of petrol, diesel and jet fuel for 18, 22 and 23 days of consumption cover respectively. DEE estimates that those numbers increase to around 80 days if supplies already loaded on tankers in ports and on route are included. If supply was interdicted or disrupted by conflict, Australia might be forced to rely on onshore reserves.

Australia sourced 29 percent of its crude oil and refined product from North-East Asia in 2017–18, (including from the Republic of Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan). The DEE argues that if ‘a regional conflict reduced supply from this region, supply would increase from India, Malaysia, the Middle East, Europe or the US’. The DEE assesses the likelihood of disruptions to Australia’s supplies as a low but as potentially having ‘high consequences’.

This judgement appears excessively sanguine given the prevailing international tensions. The potential for conflict at present is higher than unlikely between China and the US in East Asia, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and Pakistan and India on the subcontinent. If conflict broke out in any of these theatres Australia’s access to liquid fuel would be compromised. If more than one descended into hostilities access to fuels would be affected not only by disruption to global shipping and destruction of production facilities; the increased demand for fuel from combatant states would reduce further available supplies.

Liquid fuel availability has obvious importance for the Australian economy, accounting for 52 percent of energy consumption. It is also a key resource for the ADF. The criticality of fuel to the operations of the F-35As has been explored on a series of excellent articles by Marcus Hellyer. His point about the real constraints fuel issues raise for aircraft, and the vulnerabilities they pose, are applicable to operations of surface ships and submarines. In a military crisis the ADF also would be competing with civil consumers for the available fuel.

The other strategic policy issue not given sufficient consideration is global warming. It’s refreshing to see that current CDF General Angus Campbell and former CDF Chris Barrie have both referred to climate change as a security issue. The use of terms here is important. Climate change tends to place the emphasis on the weather related consequences of the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They are of course an important aspect of rising temperatures but its use tends to obscure other no less serious effects.

What General Campbell said in a recent speech is not clear, but reporting indicates he claimed Australia is ‘the most natural disaster-prone region in the world’. While hotter drier summers are causing more serious droughts and fire event in Australia, It is an exaggeration when the impacts and relative costs of typhoons and hurricanes and drought and floods in places like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, North Asia, the Sahel, and the Atlantic coast of America are considered. His main point though, that there are significant ramifications for the defence force from global warming connected disasters, is welcome.

Chris Barrie’s recent article is focussed more directly on the national security implications of global warming. Importantly, Barrie goes beyond the issue of disaster relief to the more fundamental, longer term social, demographic, and economic consequences. His survey canvasses the rising global consensus that global warming will drive internal and external mass migration, and ignite conflicts over declining crucial resources like water. He notes that Asia will see, ‘rising sea levels, water and food shortages, armed conflicts and natural disasters, and [those] desperate to find more secure homes’.

Here we encounter the shallowness of Australia’s strategic policy. As a result of global warming the existing tensions will be added to and exacerbated by the prospect of conflict and social and political collapse in our region and across the globe. These will most likely occur in regions Australia depends upon for liquid fuels that are required to both respond to global warming origin disasters, underpin economic resilience, and by the ADF to defend and manage Australia’s security. The adequacy and security of oil supplies will be diminished by the same forces that drive up our need for them.

Taking a broad view the recent Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee inquiry on Implications of climate change for Australia’s national security observed that ‘Climate change is also adversely affecting other aspects of Australia’s national security, including the economy, infrastructure, and community health and well-being’. In this broader conception national security must be seen as requiring a holistic response. Even strategic policy must encompass adaptation to global warming and a move away from the reliance on fossil fuels and embrace mitigation of global warming drivers.

The relationship between fuel and global warming is, however, only a small part of the problem of genuinely providing security to Australians.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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