21 May 2008

Last year, I emailed several ministers and my MPs for answers to my peak oil queries. None of them responded except the Minister of Defence, Teo Chee Hean - hats off to him.

Read Mindef's response below and gauge for yourself - Is Singapore prepared for peak oil? Judging from this letter alone, these plans are best described as "symptomatic treatments".

In medicine, a symptomatic treatment is therapy that eases the symptoms of a disease without addressing its etiology or root cause. Likewise, the Singapore government's plans to tackle energy-related threats to our economic growth and national security are just like symptomatic treatments which will only provide temporary relief. Just as you cannot cure a cancer patient with painkillers alone, so are we unable to solve our energy/ecological problems by merely turning to alternative energies.

Herman Daly: Environmental degradation is an iatrogenic disease induced by the economic physicians who attempt to treat the basic sickness of unlimited wants by prescribing unlimited production. We do not cure a treatment-induced disease by increasing the treatment dosage! Yet members of the hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you school, who reason that it is impossible to have too much of a good thing, can hardly cope with such subtleties. If an overdose of medicine is making us sick, we need an emetic, not more of the medicine. Physician, heal thyself.
Here are some of the issues and questions that I have with regard to Mindef's letter:

1. Population levels and growth were not addressed: we can conserve and improve our energy efficiency per-capita, but if population levels are not kept in check, overall energy consumption will still increase.

2. Food supplies were not addressed: peak oil entails peak food production in industrial agriculture. Diversifying our food sources is not a satisfactory solution since they are probably highly dependent on fossil fuels for their efficiency and output. Should we not consider devising a plan to carry out intensive urban agriculture as the Cubans have done? How did the Cubans manage it? Here's an excerpt from Richard Heinberg's latest book, Peak Everything (pp. 56-57):
In the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its source of cheap oil. Its industrialized agricultural system, which was heavily fuel-dependent, immediately faltered. Very quickly, Cuban leaders abandoned the Soviet industrial model of production, changing from a fuel- and petrochemical- intensive farming method to a more localized, labor-intensive. organic mode of production.

How they did this is itself an interesting story. Eco-agronomists at Cuban universities had already been advocating a transition somewhat along these lines. However, they were making little or no headway. When the crisis hit, they were given free rein to, in effect, redesign the entire Cuban food system. Had these academics not had a plan waiting in the wings, the nation's fate might have been sealed.

...Cuban farmers began breeding oxen for animal traction. The Cuban people adopted a largely vegetarian diet...Urban gardens (including rooftop gardens) were encourage, and today they produce 50 to 80 percent of vegetables consumed in cities.

Early on, it was realized that more farmers were needed, and that this would require education. All of the nation's colleges and universities quickly added courses on agronomy. At the same time, wages for farmers were raised to be at parity with those for engineers and doctors...

The result was survival. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds of body weight, but in the long run the overall health of the nation's people actually improved. Today, Cuba has a stable, slowly growing economy. There are few if any luxuries, but everyone has enough to eat. Having seen the benefit of smaller-scale organic production, Cuba's leaders have decided that even if they find another source of cheap oil, they will maintain a commitment to their new, decentralized, low-energy methods.
3. Our flawed limitless economic growth model: economic growth is the increase in the production and consumption of goods and services over a certain period. How can we reconcile limitless economic growth with finite natural resources? And without economic growth, there would be large scale financial instability because of our fractional reserve banking system.

4. Peak natural gas: crude oil peaks and so does natural gas. Research from theoildrum and hubbertpeak say that conventional natural gas would peak by 2020 - a mere 8 years after Singapore completes its LNG facilities in 2012; CNG and LNG are not a panacea to our energy woes. Is the government not aware of peak natural gas?

5. Biofuels and solar: They cannot equal crude oil in terms of versatility, usefulness and energy density. There are about 860,000 vehicles here in Singapore and 600 million worldwide. Can we expect to convert even a quarter of these vehicles to alternative fuels by 2030? (the year Energy Watch Group expects global oil production to drop by half to 39M/D).

The development of alternative energies is contingent on a fossil fuel economy and infrastructure. It's a vicious cycle: we need alternative energies to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, but we can't accomplish it unless we have fossil fuels around to develop such technologies.

12 April 2007


To: Dear TM


1 . I refer to your feedback addressed to the Minister for Defence.

2. Energy security is a global concern, and more so for countries like Singapore which do not have domestic oil sources. We would like to assure you and other members of the public that the government is keeping a close watch on energy developments such as peak oil projections and is committed to develop robust solutions for the present and future energy needs of Singapore.

3. The Government has put in place policies to safeguard security of our energy supplies and at the same time ensure competitiveness of our electricity costs. Due to the relatively higher efficiency of combined cycle gas turbines, more than 80% of our electricity today is generated using natural gas. To ensure continuity of our electricity supplies, generation companies are required to put in place measures to deal with system contingencies, such as the requirement for these companies to hold 90 days worth of fuel reserves. If natural gas supply is disrupted, our gas turbines can switch to diesel that is stockpiled. MINDEF also ensures adequate fuel stockpiles for national defence needs.

4. The system would be further strengthened with the introduction of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) import over time. LNG will also ensure that Singapore has security of supply through source diversification and enable the creation and introduction of competition in gas in the longer term.

5. Concurrently, Singapore is also exploring clean energy. EDB has achieved early success in promoting this sector including attracting solar photo voltaic and bio­fuel players to set up in Singapore. From the perspective of meeting Singapore's energy needs today, renewable energy sources presently have cost and technology limitations. Nonetheless, the Government is keeping a close watch and has committed S$170 million in research funds to develop a clean energy industry, with solar energy as a key area of research.

6. Besides developing new energy sources, it is also important that good energy conservation practices are adopted to reduce our consumption of conventional energy. The National Environment Agency has launched an Energy Efficiency Improvement Assistance Scheme (EASE), which companies can tap on to engage expert consultants to audit their energy consumption and recommend measures to save energy. For households, consumers can also turn to devices such as efficient electrical appliances, in order to use energy efficiently. NEA administers an energy labelling programme to help consumers select efficient air conditioners and refrigerators.

7. We thank you for your feedback.

Yours sincerely



'Shotgun' said...

I find the reply from Mindef to be quite logical.

High oil prices is not a problem that can be solved by Mindef or the Singapore government for that matter. Even OPEC has one hand tied behind their back on this. I see no means for Mindef or Singapore to prescribe anything other than "symptomatic treatments".

I have to admit, the point on urban agriculture was rather creative. I do have doubts whether Singaporeans would want to start "farming" again.

What I fully agree is that we are over reliant on fossil fuels. In a way, I feel that the govt should seriously explore nuclear energy. With the right expertise (Foreign Talents), nuclear energy can be a safe and cheap in the long run.

TM said...

Dear shotgun, i agree with you that our government can't do much about high oil prices and that's why we are so vulnerable. Instead of seeking alternative energies alone, we need to get to the root of the problem: overgrowth. Nuclear energy won't come easily. You can't build a nuclear plant overnight. If peak oil is now, nuclear energy won't make a difference until it's completed. Also, don't forget that mining and extracting uranium requires oil-powered machinery. Uranium reserves are also finite. see this link: http://www.financialsense.com/fsu/editorials/petch/2005/0703.html

Singaporeans may not "want" to farm again, but it will be forced upon us when food becomes scarce. Whether we like it or not, we have to prepare for it. It's better to adapt now than to have Nature take care of us.

xiAogOu said...

Comparing Singapore to Cuba is quite a stretch.

At the time of the Soviet collapse Cuba was mainly an industrial-agricultural economy. They are switching their mode of food production.

In Singapore, the general population has long moved out of agriculture. Would the bankers and doctors suddenly start planting food? I highly doubt so.

What's more, look at the population density of the two countries. In Singapore there definitely isn't sufficient land to make anyform of rooftop cultivation (20 floors of HDB to share 1 small plot of land at the top next to the water tanks?)

I agree that alternatives need to be explored, but I really doubt urban agriculture is one of the viable suggestions.

tm said...

xiAogOu, as I have said it does not matter whether we are willing or whether we like it or not. It will be forced upon us when the food crunch hits us. We can either starve, or we can find ways and means to grow food in this city.