The good times will not roll on forever

By Raffique Shah
Sunday, August 26th 2007

Natural GasPrime Minister Patrick Manning and his critics seem to be missing the main issue in the heated debate over the Ryder Scott report on our gas reserves. It’s not about how much gas there is, or how much more is waiting to be “discovered”. If some global energy experts are right, Trinidad and Tobago is sitting on possible reserves of 90 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas. And if, over the next ten years, we succeed in adding 25 per cent of that volume to our proved reserves, then Mr Manning’s industrialisation programme will be adequately serviced with its principal feedstock, relatively cheap gas. If they are wrong, if gas runs out in ten years, then we’d be left with a mass of abandoned, rundown plants, much the way Texaco left us holding a skeletal refinery that was on the brink of collapse.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain. Fossil fuels will run out some time within the next 50 years or so. Hopefully, there will still be sufficient food and water to sustain man, and global warming spares humanity cataclysmic changes that would terminate civilisation.

In other words, we have much more to worry about than gas and oil. Regarding the latter, although we are a minute player in the global field, people need to understand that there is a shortage of refining capacity across the world. If we can restore Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre facility to the 300,000 barrels per day it once processed, and upgrade and streamline it so it produces high-quality fuels in demand, then we shall have another cash cow to milk.

But the overriding question is what energy sources will drive our economy and sustain life after oil and gas have run out? That’s the question we should have been asking ourselves for some time now.

The fact is we do have alternatives-more than we shall ever need. There’s the sun, there’s wind, there’s tidal potential, and there’s the new rave of gluttons-renewable energy or biofuels. The latter I would write off “one time”, as we Trinis say. To siphon crops that provide food for man in order to keep motor vehicles running is criminal.

It is one thing to allocate some farmland for growing sugar cane (and other crops) for the production of ethanol, in which Brazil, because of its vast land-mass, has become a showpiece. But a major food crisis looms large when countries like the USA, Europe and many others divert crops used as staples into fuels, the sole purpose being to keep developed nations fuelled-four cars per family, air conditioning in every home and vehicle, ski-ramps complete with snow in desert nations like the UAE, and worse.

Man’s greed, our selfishness in wanting to consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, will prove to be our undoing. In the USA, for example, its government and people should be saying to themselves, okay, we are limiting each family to two vehicles, we shall use electricity only as required, let’s cut the wastage of a wasting asset. Nooo! The Americans believe they have a Bush-given right to consume and to waste-just look at their waistlines! Trinidad is little different. Think of those among us who are fortunate to have adequate water supplies, how easily we waste it even as entire communities remain without. Think, too, of the tonnes of food we waste while thousands of children go to bed hungry.

But I digress. Given the vast oil and gas wealth we now enjoy, any sensible government would have used the windfall to start diversifying, to harness alternative energy so that future generations can enjoy decent lifestyles we would have bequeathed them.

Solar and wind energy are currently quite costly. But advanced technology continues to drive costs down. We should be utilising a combination of these two to cut back on power consumption from the national grid, and by extension, our dependence on fossil fuels.

Nature has been generous to us. But our greed and stupidity must be driving nature mad. Imagine, if you will, wind farms fully powering far-flung districts: no overhead electricity lines, no mass of unsightly poles and cables, no fear of cable thieves. Think of every new house or office building being partly powered by solar panels. Think of all public buildings utilising natural lighting as much as is possible (so you won’t need to use electric lighting all day), recycling wastewater, having greenery around to purify the air we breathe.

As far back as in 1928, Mahatma Gandhi, looking at western patterns of consumption, warned: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the west. If an entire nation of 300 million (India’s population at the time) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” To think that Gandhi had not seen the wild consumerism that has enveloped most of the world-India included. He was indeed a visionary. And we are blinded by the good times that we think will roll on forever.

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