Like many things these days, a reliable weathervane of public mood on energy prices is WhatsApp postings.
There are scores of photographs of filling station signs shared on groups showing the price of petrol and diesel overshooting the symbolic €2 per litre mark.
In a widely circulated mock-up picture a woman admires a man’s scent and says: “That smells expensive, what is it?” He replies: “Petrol.”
And, of course, there are plenty of mugshots too of the villains with caustic comments accompanying them. No, not Vladimir Putin in this instance. Rather it’s the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and, especially, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan.
“People are obviously aware these events are outside the control of the Government,” says political scientist Dr Maurice Manning, referring to the impact an energy crisis will have on domestic politics. “If there is a generalised feeling of discontent and distemper, and people are not generally feeling good, these just feed into an anti-government feeling.
“People who are not happy with the Government will become even more unhappy. Those who were wavering can get caught up in the mood. This is the main thing that governments have to fear, that it changes the mood.”
Indeed, the public mood has taken a sharp downward dip in the past week as pump prices spiralled, as we have seen a relatively modern phenomenon in Irish politics – petrol pump politics – kick in.
It is not without precedent. The oil crisis of 1973 and 1974, which had its beginnings in the Yom Kippur war, led to oil shortages and a marked drop in living standards in Ireland, exacerbating existing problems including rampant inflation.
It led to long queues at petrol pumps and two years of economic hardship. The Fine Gael-Labour coalition took a big political hit from which it never fully recovered. The Minister for Misery caricature in the satirical Hall’s Pictorial Weekly TV series captured the public sentiment.
There was a further oil crisis in 1979 caused by the shocks of the Iranian revolution. The resultant rationing pummelled the reputation of already beleaguered Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch.
Petrol pump politics have returned as a central feature in domestic political discourse over the past 18 months as energy prices have risen. Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, has been delivering weekly brimstone and fury, particularly targeting the carbon tax.
The criticism is undoubtedly populist but not without substance. With such a dispersed population and disjointed transport system, a high proportion of the population remain car-dependent.
Lisa Ryan, professor in 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 Covid, the volumes of imports are increasing. At the same time, across the board, the price of gas, oil and coal have all risen dramatically.
“Half of our electricity is based on natural gas and we are trying to get away from coal and increase our renewables,” she says.
“The target for renewables is 80 per cent by 2030. We need to accelerate that.”
25 per cent of all oil comes from Russia and the Urals. That’s why oil prices have dramatically increased
She says gas is meant to provide flexibility in our energy systems (such as when winds are calm) but is being used as a base load.
“The other problem is transport: 25 per cent of all oil comes from Russia and the Urals. That’s why oil prices have dramatically increased.”
Ryan says the crises of the 1970s resulted in reducing car journeys and an increase in fuel efficiency. But this is harder to achieve in Ireland where people are very reliant on private cars, particularly in rural areas with dispersed populations, she adds.
What is happening is a perfect storm, says Ryan. She says during 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 reduced production to maintain prices. Post-Covid demand is higher but Opec has not yet met targets to increase supply and there is a shortfall, she says.
However, she says the International Energy Agency believes oil supply will increase to be above demand by the end of the year, which should help resolve the issue.
Ireland is only 3 per cent reliant on Russian gas compared with Germany, which is 80 per cent reliant. Most gas in Ireland originates from Norway and comes through the UK.
Long term, Ryan believes we have to push for alternatives, primarily wind renewables. She says she is stating the obvious when she describes it as “enormously challenging”.
We need to switch from oil to accelerate the development of offshore renewables, retrofitting and district heating plants
Now there is an immediate threat. The Minister in the eye of the storm, Eamon Ryan, sees the same patterns now as occurred during the previous oil crises with geopolitical issues driving up prices.
“There is a similar question now. Everybody agrees we need to divest from fossil fuels, from Russian oil and gas particularly.”
He argues the Government’s approach is two-pronged. He says it has already taken immediate measures to protect the short-term impacts, particularly around price.
“We will follow that up in a few weeks with further efficiency measures.”
Long term, he argues, the best protection against future shocks is to use less. “We need to switch from oil to accelerate the development of offshore renewables, retrofitting and district heating plants.
“We should not give false expectations that we can cover all of the increased cost,” he adds.
Carbon tax can’t be revisited. His stance is that its cost is only 5c a day for heating oil. “It would not be right to upend a socially progressive measure that is working well and combats the climate challenge. We would be giving up a very important tool.”
The Opposition and many motorists don’t see it that way. The next increase in carbon tax will undoubtedly lead to renewed criticism of the Government, the Greens and of Ryan.
Manning characterises the political difficulty. “The Government is caught at both ends. It has less money to spend. It is obliged to spend what little money it has to try to alleviate something it can’t really have any radical approach to as it is not in a position to change any of the geopolitical factors that are causing all of this.
“Yet a lot of people who were not well disposed in the first place are now ill disposed towards them.”
He sees this as a critical moment. “I think the crisis we are in at the moment is probably more dangerous because we may be only at the beginning of a long period of uncertainty to put it at its mildest.”