Pump, the new film by Josh and Rebecca Tickell, directors of Fuel and The Big Fix, premiered in New York and Los Angeles the same weekend as the largest climate rally in history. As some 400,000 people marched to tell world leaders we have to get off fossil fuels or face human extinction, this film promoted the use of alternative transportation fuels including ethanol, methanol from natural gas and compressed natural gas (CNG), the latter two obtained through the noxious and greenhouse gas producing process called fracking.
In Fuel, Josh Tickell’s first film about biofuels, he doesn’t advocate anything that is not sustainable or will harm the environment. In 2008, when two Science Magazine articles exposed the fact that corn and soy-based biofuels actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, Josh re-edited his film. “Was my entire life’s purpose, everything I had worked so hard for, hurting the environment?” he asked.
He discussed how much energy it takes to produce corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel, how they use an incredible amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which run off into rivers and streams and cause a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and how they are produced by large agribusinesses with government subsidies. Dumping our excess cheap corn on world markets causes family farmers worldwide to go out of business.
Eight years later in Pump, when the Tickells recommend corn-based ethanol as a way to get us off oil, none of this is mentioned. In fact, they now dispatch the controversy of food versus fuel as propaganda advanced by Big Oil.
So why did the Tickells change their tune about ethanol? And why are they recommending two alternative fuels that most commonly come from fracked natural gas? I followed the money to find out.
Pump was funded by the Fuel Freedom Foundation (FFF) founded by Joseph Hollander and Eyal Aronoff. Their mission statement says:
Our goal is to reduce the cost of transportation fuels in the US by $300 billion annually within ten years. In personal terms it means $2 a gallon at the pump, adding $2,500 per year to the pockets of the average American family. In national terms it means accelerated economic growth, greater energy security, reduced air pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions and improved health. Fuel Freedom provides a big break for Americans without increasing government spending.
Sounds good. All gain no pain. But when you peruse their website, you see that they are not concerned about the environment at all. They are advancing any fuel they think will get us off Middle East oil, including dirty coal and natural gas.
Why do these former software entrepreneurs want to get us off Mideast oil? Did they, like the Koch brothers, set up a think tank just to advance their business interests? It would be impossible for me to find out what stocks or business opportunities they have invested in. Neither the filmmakers nor the publicist would answer this question, which I posed in two emails.
However, in July 2012, Eyal Aronoff made a presentation titled “Methanol Fuel, the Business Opportunity of the Future.” In it, he recommended converting our natural gas supply into methanol fuel because “the profit margins are gigantic. If this was a company, its profit margins would be twice as big as Walmart . . . Within 10-15 years, this will become a trillion dollar industry!” He acknowledged that there are competing interests before he ended with the challenge at hand: “How we find ways to work together with the government agencies, with industry, with the auto companies, and with the consumers to create awareness and to create this transition to happen?”
Four months later, at the FFF’s official launch, the founders detailed just how they were going to sell it to consumers: “Generate public support through media and communications, including a full-length documentary film illustrating the potential of alternative fuels.”
This is where the Tickells came in. They had already made two films vilifying Big Oil. The founders of FFF turned them down for funding for The Big Fix (2012), but this time they complied. So how did they Tickells sell the concept?
George Marshall, founder of the Climate Information Network, says that people are motivated to act by stories, not data. And every good story needs a villain. In Pump, the entire first half of the film tells us how Big Oil is responsible for the destruction of mass transit, Prohibition, all wars, the killing of methanol as a viable fuel, the killing of the Open Fuel Standard, the financial collapse of 2008 and the bankruptcy of Detroit. It also states that the booming economy of Brazil is due to their getting off petroleum and onto sugar cane based ethanol.
As an activist fighting fracking, no one hates Big Oil more than I. But these accusations are reductionist at best and mendacious at worst. (I debunk each of them in a longer review of this film on AlterNet. I also discuss another motive of Aronoff and Hollander for getting off Middle East oil: the security of Israel.)
There are many experts featured in the film – some of whom are also board members of the Fuel Freedom Foundation. In Pump they are used to make many points. But their long history of support for natural gas is never mentioned.
John Hofmeister, who is always identified as the former president of Shell Oil in the film and elsewhere, actually still has current financial interests in oil and gas.
Amy Myers Jaffe’s book Natural Gas and Geopolitics: From 1970 to 2040 advocates for the global development of natural gas as a solution to our energy and geopolitical problems. Last year at a Union of Concerned Scientists forum on fracking at UCLA, I heard her make a case for the benefits of fracking while minimizing its risks.
Gal Luft wrote a book called Petropoly: The Collapse of America’s Energy Security Paradigm. Chapter three is titled “Hope and Change: America’s Natural Gas.” A promo for the book on Amazon reads “On the bright side, a revolution in extraction technologies has opened the door to unconventional natural gas.”
In Pump, fracking is only addressed twice. When showing fracking rigs in the Bakken oil fields, there is one line that says people are “concerned about the effects on water and air. But as the debate continues, fracking is growing at a record pace.”
There is no real “debate” about the effects of fracking on water and air. Studies not funded by the industry have shown that fracking pollutes both the groundwater and the air, causes earthquakes, increases climate change, causes the industrialization of landscapes and uses too much water in states plagued by drought. Describing these “concerns” as a “debate” is like saying there is a debate over whether climate change exists or whether it is caused by human behavior.
After they show how methanol can be made from natural gas, the filmmakers say there is such a glut of natural gas that gas companies are flaring it into the air. So if it is being produced anyway, we might as well use it for fuel. “Clearly industry can improve its practices. But love it or hate it, natural gas is here to stay.”
While Rebecca Tickell insisted to me in an email and in a phone interview that the film does not promote fracking, to say that the “industry can improve its practices” is to imply that fracking can be done safely and cleanly, which it cannot.
The reason the gas industry is flaring is that there are not enough pipelines to get the gas to market and the price of natural gas is too low to justify building them. But President Obama and his energy secretary, whose research at MIT was funded by the natural gas industry, are trying their hardest to build more pipelines, refineries to liquefy natural gas (LNG) and export terminals to ship both LNG and coal overseas.
If LNG export terminals are approved, this country will see an explosion of fracking even worse than what we’ve seen already. If they do succeed with their plan to export LNG and lift the 40-year oil export ban, the cost of both fuels will skyrocket, because we will send most of it to China where they will pay more. So we’ll frack up the country and not even end up with low prices, energy independence or that trillion-dollar methanol industry Eyal Aronoff was touting.
Further, to proclaim “natural gas is here to stay” implies resignation to the current state of affairs, hardly motivating if you really want your audience to hate and fight fracking. No filmmakers can seriously call themselves environmentalists if they produce a film that advocates for anything less than the banning of this horrific practice.
Rebecca Tickell wrote Truthout,” . . . we can create all of the natural gas and methanol we would need to replace America’s liquid energy needs – sustainably – with sewage, trash, animal waste, landfill gas and CO2 pulled from the atmosphere.”
However, we are a long way from making that transition on a large scale. Anaerobic digesters are illegal in many places, and their significant future potential would require political and economic factors to be overcome. The burning of trash will never be a sustainable and clean way of producing energy. Using the fossil fuel natural gas is the easiest and cheapest way to go.
While the Tickells might not have intended to make a film advocating fracking, the funders and the experts of the film have been touting it in public appearances.
When Sean Hannity promoted the film on Fox News, he asked John Hofmeister whether fracking poisons our water. “What does the EPA say, John?” – surely a set-up question. Hofmeister replied, “EPA head Gina McCarthy has said there is not a single documented case of polluted water from hydrofracking.” ProPublica reported on how the Environmental Protection Agency was pressured to stop three fracking investigations before they were finished. There are many studies that link fracking to water contamination.
Rebecca told Truthout it was good that people like Hannity are promoting the film, because “you don’t have people from that side talking about how you have to get off oil . . . We have to start a conversation with someone other than the Green choir.”
What she seemed to miss was that Hannity was talking only about getting off foreign oil – not oil in general. The title of the segment was: “New documentary seeks to end US dependence on foreign oil.” And the graphic behind Hannity said “Drill Baby Drill.”
In this interview, Gal Luft said that oil companies are becoming natural gas companies. When I asked Rebecca how she felt about the oil monopoly she and Josh have excoriated in all their films now becoming producers of natural gas, the very fossil fuel promoted in Pump, she said it was “very scary.”
As Josh Tickell said about a sting he and Rebecca were involved in earlier this year, “There was a moment at the end of the meeting when we looked at each other and knew in our gut we should get up and leave, but we made the wrong choice. I didn’t look into my gut, and I regret that.” I wonder if someday he might feel the same way about the folks he had to get into bed with to make this film.
Pump’s solutions are for Americans to buy flex-fuel cars or convert their regular car to flex-fuels using a conversion kit or hacking the car’s computer. The film closes by restating its theme: freedom of choice. “Americans have been hearing about energy independence since 1974. But nothing has been done. It’s time to give Americans choice. We cannot rely on government. We cannot rely on corporations. Americans have to rely on themselves.” Bashing government and corporations! This is an argument that both Tea Partiers and Occupiers can love.
There is nothing inherently objectionable about freedom of choice. But when it is used as a buzzword to cover up agendas like those of the Fuel Freedom Foundation and the libertarian Koch brothers’ Freedom Partners, let the buyer beware. It is unrealistic to expect that people exercising free choice will solve the problem of climate change, which will require massive government action and cooperation by business as well as individuals.
Pump is really persuasive as a piece of propaganda. The danger is if people are sucked into a story about big bad oil companies thwarting Americans’ freedom of choice, they might walk away from this movie supporting natural gas or not thinking about the hard choices we have to make to get off fossil fuels.
If the Tickells really wanted to make a movie about how to get off oil and power the world, including transportation fuel, with alternatives, they could have made a movie about Mark Jacobson, the Stanford professor who has developed a plan to power our economy, 100 percent, using renewable sources, mostly solar, wind and water, by 2030. Rebecca told me she never heard of him or his website www.thesolutionsproject.org.
Or they could have made a film about how to reconfigure your car to run on solar power that you can generate from panels on your roof as described here and here. But that would not have fit in with the natural gas promoting agenda of the Fuel Freedom Foundation.