When she presented her Budget Vote speech in Parliament last month, Energy Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said that she intended to approach Cabinet with a proposal to build a new oil refinery in South Africa.
I think that this is a good idea. The sooner the better. The Minister pointed out the danger of relying too much on imported fuel and said that the import percentage was rising to too great a figure.
It needs courageous vision to embark on large-scale projects like the envisaged refinery. It is never possible to calculate these things out totally beforehand to keep the accountants totally happy. There are just too many variables. At some stage, a value judgment has to come into play and a leadership call made.
A while ago, I was asked to carry out a project related to the fuel tanks in the Durban harbour. These giant tanks contain imported oil on its way to be refined in South Africa, as well as refined fuel.
A marvel of technology is the collection of pipelines that pump this fuel up to Johannesburg. It is quite amazing. They put one fuel, such as petrol, into a pipeline and then pump it towards Johannesburg. After a while, when the correct amount is in the pipeline, they put in a solid spacer and then start adding another fuel, such as diesel, into the same pipeline. The spacer moves along the pipeline with petrol on one side and diesel on the other. I find these things fascinating. South Africa is a very large country, by European standards, so we have to do this sort of thing.
My exposure to these tanks was not new. In years gone by, I spent many days and nights in the guard towers watching the tanks, all alone in a 3 m3 concrete box. The tanks were placed by the authorities many decades ago. It seemed sensible to place them close to the ships that brought the oil to South Africa. That was before we had the pipelines.
It was the same type of thinking that placed coal-fired power stations right next to the cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Then someone, lost to the mists of time, said: “Why don’t we build the coal-fired power stations near the coal mines and rather transport the electricity instead of the coal?”
I looked at the oil tanks, the pipelines and other stuff. There is no space for expansion by the fuel tanks. In fact, the whole setup now is quite dangerous for a number of reasons. So I am thinking: Why not build new tanks 50 km to 100 km away from the harbour? Maybe even further away. Then one can also think of the new refinery. Why not build it 100 km away, say, in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands? Why not move the oil to the refinery, rather than bring the refinery near the ships? Land further away is much cheaper. One can choose a place which is inherently much safer – from aircraft crashing into it to the danger of spillage, etcetera. Also, if something were to go horribly wrong at the refinery, it would not wipe out a few ships at the same time.
Of course, a refinery inland could also be placed near an area that needs job creation. It could also be placed in a place where associated businesses would benefit, leading to natural local economic growth.
So, I support the idea of the new refinery because I think it would be a sensible move for the future of the country. But a great project like this gives modern thinkers a chance to think much more widely than just the new refinery itself. How about thinking of pipelines to other places in the country? What about the export of fuel to neighbouring countries? How could that be done in the best way possible? Pipelines to those countries too? Or maybe special trains which arrive at a special loading system at the refinery and then travel to a neighbouring country to offload at a special off-loading facility.
Maybe a new railway tanker in which the whole tank is removed so that a train can drop off tanks of fuel along the way.
Now is a chance to think of all this.