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Energy Insights:9: Oil addiction: Obsessed with black gold

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9: Oil addiction: Obsessed with black gold


NZ Herald

We just can't help ourselves. When it comes to cars, we're suckers for gas-guzzling hunks of steel. New Zealanders love cars; the gruntier, the better.

Even our Government ministers have gone for thirsty beasts. As well as those speedy Crown limos at their service, Cabinet ministers have cars provided for their own use, and many choose machines that would make an oil sheik shriek with delight - Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons.

And before you go tut-tutting, their tastes in vehicles are nothing unusual in this so-called clean, green country of ours.

Like it or not, we are addicted to oil. New Zealand's lust for black gold is insatiable, outstripping economic growth. And like junkies who can't kick a drug habit, it's making us go crazy - just ask those at the coalface.

Service station manager Vijay Kosna thought he was moving to a fairly laid-back corner of Auckland when he bought into the oil business as an independent operator at BP Whenuapai two years ago.

He loves being part of the community he serves and says the locals have been very supportive. He chats to his regulars about cricket, the weather, land values and, lately, petrol prices.

But in the past few months, soaring prices have turned him into a part-time detective, tracking down thieves.

Some are hoons who tear off without paying, others leave bank cards or mobile phones and a promise to return and pay. Either way, he rarely sees them again.

His legitimate customers, he has found, are starting to buy less than they used to.

"They are thinking about it a lot more and cutting short their travel," says Kosna, a father of one who has a master of chemistry degree.

"It was not so noticeable over Christmas, but now they are thinking twice before they travel."

If Kosna is detecting a shift in our attitudes, it's a change which will be welcomed by officials who pore over oil consumption figures. The evidence they've seen so far suggests that high prices have not discouraged New Zealanders from driving.

For two decades, we've gulped more and more oil. Consumption increased 30 per cent in the 10 years to 2004; in the 10 years before that, the rise was 34 per cent.

And make no mistake that transport is to blame. Eighty-five per cent of all oil use is for domestic transport, mostly cars, trucks and vans.

It's a trend that began in the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis when, for a decade, consumption declined. But since the mid-1980s, the juggernaut has been revving up again.

Stuart Calman, manager of the Ministry of Economic Development's energy and environmental policy group, says oil use was high in the early 1970s before prices sky-rocketed.

The oil shock forced major industrial users to find alternatives. Power stations, dairy plants, and factories running boilers, for example, switched from oil to coal and gas. Gas was particularly attractive after the discovery of the Maui field ensured cheap, plentiful supplies.

But in the transport sector, petrol and diesel remained king and by 1990 it accounted for 80 per cent of oil use.

Cheap car imports and a steadily growing economy - products have got to get from seller to buyer somehow - have made us thirstier for oil.

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, in an effort to come up with ways to quench that thirst, has studied what it is about New Zealanders and wheels.

Price, it found, was no brake, failing to change our behaviour. "In fact, consumption of transport fuels over the past few years has outstripped the increase in GDP," the authority wrote in its briefing to new Energy Minister David Parker.

Research commissioned by the authority last year looked at the psychology of driving and why we were so hooked. It found that driving was much more than a mode of transport - it was a tool for independence and freedom.

"I'd hate to be without a car," one respondent told the researchers. "I just like the fact that you don't have to rely on time, like if you want to go out for the day somewhere for a picnic, you're not relying on buses and public transport, having to be there at a certain time."

For some, driving was a period of downtime when they could switch off from the outside world and enjoy their own company. For others, it was a leisure activity all of its own.

"I like the wide open spaces. I've got a diesel ute for work but it's a turbo one. It will do 160km/h which is not bad, plus it's diesel," said one driver.

Another said: "I like probably nothing better than a half-decent car on a half-decent day and a little bit of road."

Asked what damage they believed their cars did to the environment, the respondents were hardly moved.

"Cows do more damage than cars do," said one.

If those responses are typical, then David Crawford has a real fight ahead of him. Crawford is manager of the Ministry of Transport's environment group, a 15-person policy team (out of a total staff at the ministry of 140). A self-confessed policy wonk, he has had spells on both sides of the environmental divide, with a CV that includes jobs at the Department of Conservation and three years at the Petroleum Exploration Association.

Since joining the ministry in October, he's been getting a kick out of being involved in figuring out how to deal with a crucial challenge for mankind, on the cusp of a major shift in how we use energy.

"As far as reliance on fossil fuels goes, part of our history is coming to an end. I'm interested in this policy area and how we find durable energy sources for transport in this country."

As the father of a single-vehicle family (they drive a Mitsubishi Delica van with a 2.8l diesel engine - not fast, but good for towing the boat), he knows the pressures families endure when it comes to transport, especially with a son who is hankering to learn to drive.

At work his challenge is to come up with ways to help New Zealand burn less oil. Over the coming months, they are due to report back to the Cabinet with a suite of proposals.

Chief among them is a proposal to promote the use of biofuels, products such as ethanol derived from non-fossil fuels. The Cabinet has already approved in principle the concept of mandatory sales targets, forcing fuel companies to blend biofuels with petrol or diesel for sale at the pumps.

Crawford's team is working through the details - what the targets should be, the financial costs, infrastructure requirements, whether there should be subsidies - but it is hoped changes will hit forecourts within two years.

Before you think that's radical, consider Sweden, where the Government announced this week that it would wean its nine million population off oil completely within 15 years.

Crawford says there is a delicate path for New Zealand to follow to make the transition to bio-fuels.

The Government must first set firm policy and have regulations to set fuel quality standards and the ability to enforce those standards.

"It then will take quite a long time for the market to get into gear and establish distribution channels," he says.

"But the market will put the investment in so long as the Government has a certainty of framework."

Then there will be the job of allaying the fears of motorists and convincing them biofuels are a viable alternative to oil.

Other Government measures may help with that task. The ministry is also looking at efficiency standards for imported cars.

That work, due before the Cabinet in September, involves a delicate balancing act. As well as environmental considerations, the Government needs to be mindful of the socio-economic impact of import controls. In other words, if the standards were so high that the only vehicles allowed into the country were super-efficient, flash European models, what would people who could not afford them drive?

As well as looking at ways to make Government fleets more efficient, the ministry is aiming to help motorists make smarter choices about their cars.

By June, a ministry website will give motorists advice on the fuel economy of just about every model of car in the country.

That way, before you buy a car, you'll be able to know how much it's going to cost you to run and how big an impact your choice will have on the environment.

From behind the counter at the BP Whenuapai, Vijay Kosna has seen more evidence that people care about what's under the bonnet than how they're harming the planet.

Since moving from India four years ago, he's noticed New Zealanders' deep love for the car.

Car magazines are the hottest property on his magazine rack, and he sees his young male customers looking longingly at cars being modified and sexed up at the panelbeating workshop next door.

"In India, just having a car is a great thing," says Kosna. "But here, it's about how fast is the car, what is its performance like, how many seconds does it take to get to 100? It's a kind of obsession."

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