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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2862

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(12.39) —The issues raised by Senator Sir John Carrick are obviously so broad-ranging that they could be productively debated for a number of hours.

Senator Sir John Carrick —Weeks.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Weeks, indeed. I hope that he will forgive me if, in the particular context of this debate, I keep my reply very brief. But let me say that, of course, I acknowledge that Australia has a problem in its declining liquid fuels self-sufficiency. How one measures the extent of that problem depends on all sorts of evanescent assumptions about both the supply and the demand side of the equation, but perhaps the most useful formula to keep in our heads is the one that was not contested as the best general summary of the situation at the recent Energy 2000 Conference, and that is the Bureau of Mineral Resources estimate that there is a 50 per cent probability of Australia being 50 per cent self-sufficient by the turn of the century.

Senator Sir John Carrick —That is a drop of 30 per cent.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Of course it is, and I readily acknowledge that. Indeed, it may be more than 30 per cent if we take it as being over 90 per cent at the moment. Of course, therein lies a problem. It is not a problem that can be met by throwing resources at domestic exploration in the hope, perhaps again likely to be unrealised, that major new discoveries will be made. It is a problem that has to be addressed, as Senator Sir John Carrick says, by conservation strategies and conversion strategies. I am particularly interested in the conversion option, with particular focus on liquefied petroleum gas and compressed natural gas for vehicle fleet usage, and also some of the other alternative fuel strategies involving gas-in particular, the direct conversion of gas to gasoline, not through the New Zealand method but by more direct processes of the kind that we are spending a lot of money on with this year's National Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Council grants, as in the past few years, to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and some commercial outlets as well.

Conservation, conversion and exploration are the crucial triad. I acknowledge that. Exploration is down to unhappily low levels at the moment, not as a result, of course, as the industry itself acknowledges, of Government policies or any lack of Government attention to this problem but, of course, as a consequence of the catastrophic decline in world prices which has seen exactly equivalent declines in exploration activity around the rest of the world. That is not to say that we can afford to be complacent about our present taxation and regulatory regimes. The Government has made a number of adjustments to those regimes through the course of this year to accommodate the new reality as we have found it. But we have not even sat on our hands there. We have embarked upon, and I have announced recently, a major re-examination of our taxation policy as it affects the oil industry. We will be doing that with a great deal of constructive assistance from the industry-most recently, in the last few days, in the form of quite substantial submissions made to me in the aftermath of the Energy 2000 conference.

To say that the Government is not addressing these issues with any sense of urgency or commitment is, I think, a trifle unfair. While I have been Minister for Resources and Energy-I know that Senator Walsh had similar preoccupations before me-I have set in train a full scale evaluation of our whole national energy strategy between now and the year 2000, the centrepiece of which is an acknowledgment that the decline in liquid fuel self-sufficiency is the biggest problem that we as a nation face. That is to be more than just a cosmetic exercise in generating paper for its own sake. It is necessarily a prolonged exercise. But it has been a very constructive one. It has taken the form of full length discussion documents put out in the early part of this year addressing all the issues to which Senator Sir John Carrick has referred, a major conference in recent months and, now, a further process of evaluation and consultation leading up to, I hope, maybe a little later than I previously thought because I want to build a number of other elements into it, a full scale policy statement canvassing and dealing with all of these issues some time during next year.

So we are conscious and I am conscious of these issues. They are not simple ones. It is important that we maintain consciousness of them. It is particularly important that we do not, in the lower fuel price regime we happen to be temporarily enjoying at the moment, lose our will to recognise the necessity for conservation. It is particularly important that the Commonwealth Government show the way. I get profoundly irritated every time I drive around Canberra at night past Commonwealth buildings and see whole buildings of 10 to 15 floors lit up. This is a simple demonstration of the profligacy of our energy policies in years gone by when there was cheap fuel. After all these years, despite energy management programs which have overlapped successive governments, we still do not seem to be solving even some of these comparatively simple problems of energy management.

So there is a lot to be done. It is important that we maintain our consciousness of it. I assure Senator Sir John Carrick that his words, unfair as I thought they were in their full rigor, nonetheless have not fallen on entirely deaf ears.

Progress reported.