Public mood plummets as pump prices soar
Like many things these days, WhatsApp posts are a reliable weathervane of the public’s mood on energy prices.
There are dozens of photographs of gas station signs shared across groups showing the price of petrol and diesel rising above the symbolic €2 per liter mark.
In a widely circulated mockup, a woman admires a man’s scent and says, “Smells expensive, what is it?” He replies, “Gasoline.”
And, of course, there are also plenty of villain shots with caustic commentary to go along with them. No, not Vladimir Putin in this case. Rather, it is the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and, most importantly, Energy Minister Eamon Ryan.
“People are obviously aware that these events are beyond the control of government,” says political scientist Dr Maurice Manning, referring to the impact an energy crisis will have on domestic politics. “If there is a general feeling of discontent and anger, and people generally don’t feel well, that only fuels anti-government sentiment.
“People who are dissatisfied with the government will become even more dissatisfied. Those who were hesitant can get carried away by the atmosphere. That’s the main thing that governments have to fear, that it changes the mood.
Indeed, the public mood dropped sharply last week as prices at the pump soared, as we saw a relatively modern phenomenon in Irish politics – petrol pump politics – kick in.
It is not unprecedented. The oil crisis of 1973 and 1974, which began with the Yom Kippur War, led to oil shortages and a sharp decline in living standards in Ireland, exacerbating existing problems including runaway inflation.
This resulted in long lines at gas pumps and two years of economic hardship. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition suffered a major political blow from which it never fully recovered. The caricature of the Minister of Misery in the satirical television series Hall’s Pictorial Weekly captivated public opinion.
There was a new oil crisis in 1979 caused by the shocks of the Iranian revolution. The resulting rationing undermined the reputation of the already beleaguered Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch.
Gas-pump politics have once again become a central part of national political discourse over the past 18 months as energy prices have risen. Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty has delivered sulfur and fury every week, particularly targeting the carbon tax.
The criticism is certainly populist but not without substance. With such a dispersed population and a disjointed transport system, a large proportion of the population remains dependent on the car.
Lisa Ryan, professor of energy economics at UCD, says Ireland’s starting point is not ideal as it is one of the most import-dependent economies in Europe. After the Covid, import volumes are increasing. At the same time, across the board, gas, oil and coal prices have all risen dramatically.
“Half of our electricity is based on natural gas and we’re trying to move away from coal and increase our renewables,” she says.
“The target for renewables is 80% by 2030. We need to accelerate that.”
25% of all oil comes from Russia and the Urals. This is why oil prices have risen dramatically
She says the gas is supposed to provide flexibility to our energy systems (like when the winds are calm), but it’s used as a base load.
“The other problem is transportation: 25% of all oil comes from Russia and the Urals. This is why oil prices have risen dramatically.
Ryan says the crises of the 1970s led to a reduction in car trips and an increase in fuel efficiency. But this is more difficult to achieve in Ireland where people are very dependent on private cars, especially in rural areas with dispersed populations, she adds.
What’s happening is a perfect storm, Ryan says. She says that at the height of Covid there was a drop in demand for fuel and the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) group of oil producing countries cut production to keep prices down. . Post-Covid demand is higher but Opec has yet to meet targets for increasing supply and there is a shortfall, she says.
However, she said, the International Energy Agency believes oil supply will rise to exceed demand by the end of the year, which should help solve the problem.
Ireland is only 3% dependent on Russian gas compared to Germany, which is 80%. Most gas in Ireland comes from Norway and passes through the UK.
In the long term, Ryan thinks we need to push for alternatives, primarily wind-powered renewables. She says she’s stating the obvious when she describes it as “enormously difficult”.
We must move away from oil to accelerate the development of offshore renewables, modernization and district heating plants
Now there is an immediate threat. Minister in the eye of the storm, Eamon Ryan, is now seeing the same patterns as in previous oil crises, with geopolitical issues driving up prices.
“There is a similar question now. Everyone agrees that we need to divest ourselves of fossil fuels, Russian oil and gas in particular.
He argues that the government’s approach is two-pronged. He says he has already taken immediate action to shield short-term impacts, particularly around price.
“We will follow up in a few weeks with further efficiency measures.”
In the long term, he argues, the best protection against future shocks is to use less. “We need to move away from oil to accelerate the development of offshore renewables, modernization and district heating plants.
“We must not give false hope that we can cover all the increased costs,” he adds.
The carbon tax cannot be revisited. His position is that his cost is only 5c per day for fuel oil. “It would not be fair to upset a socially progressive measure that works well and fights the climate challenge. We would be giving up a very important tool.
The opposition and many motorists don’t see it that way. The upcoming carbon tax hike will no doubt bring fresh criticism of the government, the Greens and Ryan.
Manning characterizes the political difficulty. “The government is caught at both ends. He has less money to spend. He’s forced to spend what little money he has to try to mitigate something that he can’t really take a drastic approach to because he’s not able to change the geopolitical factors that are causing it all.
“Yet many people who were not well disposed to begin with are now ill disposed towards them.”
He sees this as a critical moment. “I think the crisis we find ourselves in right now is probably more dangerous because we may only be at the start of a long period of uncertainty to bring it to its peak.”