Oil is the master resource that fuels the world economy, providing 33 per cent of global primary energy supply, supplying 95 per cent of the energy powering global transport systems, and providing feedstock for the diverse petrochemicals industry (IEA 2013). Since the Second World War, growth in the world economy has been strongly correlated with growth in oil consumption. Similarly, demand for oil products in South Africa has grown in step with the economy, and our passenger and freight transport systems depend overwhelmingly on petroleum fuels. In the apartheid era, the nationalist government's approach to liquid fuel security in the face of international sanctions was to build expensive, capital intensive coal-to-liquid and gas-to-liquid synthetic fuel plants to compensate for South Africa's lack of indigenous oil reserves. Since 1994, by contrast, the democratically elected government has pursued reintegration with the world economy, and South Africa's growing liquid fuel demand has been met almost entirely by rising imports of crude oil and – in recent years – refined fuels as well. The country currently relies on imports to meet at least 70 per cent of its liquid fuel needs, and is therefore vulnerable to global oil price hikes. There are both short-term and long-term threats to global oil supplies and prices which, if not mitigated, could have very serious effects on our economy and society.
This chapter provides a brief overview of a complex set of issues related to the risks inherent in South Africa's dependency on imported oil. Section 2 deals with the global oil outlook, highlighting projections of demand for oil, conventional oil supply, unconventional oil resources, world oil exports, energy return on investment for oil, and the implications of these trends for international crude oil prices. Section 3 focuses on South Africa's liquid fuel-related vulnerabilities and the likely implications of pursuing a business- as-usual path. Section 4 considers the main alternatives to imported petroleum, including options for domestic liquid fuel production and a shift to electrified transport systems. The concluding section interprets the oil dilemma from the perspective of a societal transition toward greater sustainability.