Australia should dramatically decrease its oil use to ward off a potential crisis by tightening fuel-efficiency standards, introducing electric vehicle targets and increasing public transport use, the Australia Institute has warned.

As of December 2018, Australia held only 18 days of petrol, 22 days of diesel and 23 days of jet fuel reserves, according to federal government figures. In the event of disruption, emergency powers to ration fuel stocks would take up to three weeks to kick in.

In a submission to a government review of the country’s liquid fuel security, researcher Tom Swann has called for stricter fuel efficiency standards for all imported cars and an urgent uptake of electric vehicles.

“Australia is an international laggard when it comes to fuel efficiency,” the Australia Institute’s energy program director, Richie Merzian, told the Guardian. “Weak fuel standards and an absence of a national electric vehicle policy leave Australia among the least fuel-efficient fleets in the OECD.”

The institute also identifies boosting public transport use, cycling and walking to help ease fuel insecurity.

“Policies could include behavioural nudges, financial incentives, changes to planning zones and infrastructure financing,” the submission says.

“Electrification of public transport – for example electric buses – can further decrease emissions and increase security.”

About 90% of Australia’s fuel supply is imported and the government has no stockpile of its own oil.

The institute argues that increasing oil production in Australia would be a “dubious response” to the fuel security question.

“Australia’s oil production has already peaked and is likely to continue to decline,” the institute says.

If all domestically produced oil was refined and used in Australia, this would meet about 25% of demand, according to the government’s draft report on fuel security, released in April.

Australia’s refinery capacity is in decline. Port Stanvac refinery in Adelaide was mothballed in 2003, the Clyde refinery in New South Wales shut down in 2012, followed by Sydney’s Kurnell refinery in 2014 and the Bulwer Island refinery near Brisbane in 2015.

“New Australian refineries are uneconomical due to competition with Asian mega- refineries,” the institute says.

The consequences of not shoring up Australia’s fuel stocks could be dire for the economy and food production, as well as presenting a strategic risk.

In 2012, a storm caused a system failure at Geelong’s Shell oil refinery which stopped production of 50% of Victoria’s diesel supply.

Diesel ran out for two days in north-west Victoria and some farmers were forced to stop harvesting their crops.

Two years later there were diesel shortages in Perth at about 100 metropolitan and regional service stations. A Western Australian government department warned drivers not to undertake long road trips without checking ahead to see if fuel was available.

The government’s final report is due out later this year, following public consultation.

Extracted from The Guardian