There are generally two things that occur following natural disasters such as the recent bushfire emergency that has impacted six Australian States/Territories in recent weeks. The first involves the provision of comprehensive assistance to disaster affected areas to help rebuild the lives and livelihoods of people and businesses directly impacted by the disaster.

Generally, the recovery effort is far from perfect reflecting the fact that these events are disasters, but it is fair to say that everyone involved is operating from a position of goodwill. That said, there will always be criticism that the assistance provided was not enough or was not provided fast enough – the current national discussion about the performance of major charities in disbursement of public donations to help affected communities is a case in point.

The second is a ‘post-mortem’ conversation where different stakeholders seek to interpret the events leading up to the disaster and then link this analysis to their own agendas. Often this is not necessarily done with goodwill but rather, amounts to some stakeholders drawing long bows between their ’cause’ and the natural disaster. Within this context, it is interesting to note some of the background commentary being advanced by those stakeholders who have long been suggesting that Australia has a problem with liquid fuel security.

Many of our readers will be familiar with the fact that there has been a longstanding debate about Australia’s fuel security, with one side of the debate arguing that Australia should become more independent of the global oil market by either increasing oil stockpiles – or by increasing domestic refinery capacity. The other side of the debate argues that Australia has a good level of liquid fuel security as a result of the country sourcing oil supplies from a diverse geographic group of more than 20 international economies – and in doing so has spread its risk of significant oil supply interruption.

“Suffice to say, the debate is complex and ACAPMA has largely deferred to the Australian Institute of Petroleum in respect of the issues involved given their deep knowledge of this issue”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie

But a disappointing aspect of this debate has emerged with some of those advocating for increased actions on liquid fuel security suggesting that the recent fuel shortages that occurred during the mass evacuations of the NSW South Coast provide ‘evidence’ of the inadequacy of Australia’s fuel reserves. Still others have argued that the fuel shortages highlight the urgent need to accelerate the market adoption of electric vehicles or increase the market utilisation of domestically produced biofuels.

“Both arguments are largely invalid and demonstrate a lack of understanding of what actually happened during the most recent disasters, said Mark.

Having been involved in the emergency coordination activities that occurred during the most recent bushfire emergency, the cause of the fuel shortages can solely be attributed to two ‘in-country’ issues. The first concerns the large number of road closures caused by simultaneous fires burning across large areas of NSW and Victoria, causing the closure of national highways and major state roads.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts of many fuel distribution businesses to find work arounds to these issues – via close coordination with state emergency services to better understand available delivery windows or arrange emergency escorts of fuel tankers into fire affected areas – it was simply not possible to physically access service stations in a number of the fire affected areas.

Somewhat frustratingly, there were numerous cases of loaded fuel tankers being parked at depots or being dispatched to the edge of fire affected regions so that service station supplies within these regions could be replenished as soon as it was safe to do so.

“Put simply, there was plenty of fuel in the country but it was simply not possible to drive fuel tankers loaded with more than 50,000 litres of flammable liquid through flames without putting the safety of employees, the general community and the environment at risk”, said Mark

The second issue relates to the loss of electricity and the difficulty encountered by many service station operators in quickly switching to generator power, following electricity outages.

Australia operates with a national electricity grid where electricity is distributed from large power generation stations (largely coal and hydro) via above ground power lines to local communities. Much of this network is in bushland areas that were heavily impacted by the recent fires.

Many service station operators, conscious of this risk based on the experience of past events, had planned for such power outages by modification of their switchboards to support the connection of the large generators (i.e. 100kVa and higher) needed to ensure business continuity in the event of power loss.

But a number of these service stations encountered significant difficulties in securing approvals to connect the generators during the recent bushfire emergency. As a result, there were several service stations on the NSW South Coast that had fuel in the ground -and a generator standing on the forecourt – but were delayed by up to 36 hours in securing the necessary approvals.

“This is a key learning from the recent fires and prompted ACAPMA to raise this issue with both Minister Littleproud’s office, the Prime Ministers office and national electricity providers”, said Mark

“We are now working with these key stakeholders to seek changes to the current regulatory framework – as enforced by the Australian Electricity Market Commission (AEMC) – to ensure that such issues do not occur in the future”, added Mark

But the failure of the national electricity grid also points to a significant challenge for the operation of electric vehicles. The loss of power, and utilisation of diesel-powered generators to provide site power, meant that it would have been virtually impossible to recharge large numbers of electric vehicles during the recent crisis.

Clearly, there is a need to improve the resilience of the national electricity grid in the face of future national disasters if we are to responsibly grow the fleet of electric vehicles – and vehicle recharging stations – in this country.

“So to those who say that the recent events demonstrate the failure of Australia to maintain sufficient in-country fuel reserves, we say look closer – the problems that were experienced during the recent bushfire emergency had absolutely nothing to do with a lack of in-country fuel supply”, concluded Mark.

The challenge for all of us going forward is to make our electricity systems, our road network and our retail business operations more resilient in the face of a predicted increase in natural disasters.