Can America Truly End Its Dependence On Oil?


Pump: The Movie is a documentary from directors Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell.  The question that is asked by this film is, “can America truly end its dependence on oil?”.  Not just foreign oil, but oil in general.  Many times, a subject such is this will be ripe with political leanings, or judgements.  In most cases, you’d be correct.  With Pump, its a little more straightforward.

Pump interviews a former head of Shell Oil, scientists who are working with methanol, the former President of Brazil who introduced fuel choice into his country, a car computer tech who can show you how to access your car’s computer and make it flex fuel compatible, and more.  Their point is that we are operating under a monopoly (the oil companies if seen as one entity) who gets most of their product from a cartel (OPEC) and supplies the product at the pump without giving us any choice in the marketplace.  On this count they are correct.

Pump goes to some well-documented lengths to show how flex fuel was originally part of Henry Ford’s design of the internal combustion engine was one that good operate on gasoline, or his favorite: alcohol.  The early trolly cars which were the original de facto public transportation all operated on electricity.  Pump documents the length that J.D. Rockefeller and a collaboration of 6 corporations, went to, to ensure that oil was the driver of all of our transportation needs, and not alternative energy sources.

While this could easily get into a “hippy”, feel-good message on the benefits of alternative fuel sources, it thankfully stays out of that territory.  Rather than dip into one ideology over another, Pumptakes a decidedly free-market approach.  The idea of alternative fuel sources might appeal more to those with a “liberal” mindset, if we are using today’s political labels, but the notion of free-markets being the driver of choice and innovation will clearly appeal to “conservative” mindsets.

We are shown documentation of examples of what this might look like from the breakthroughs of the Tesla Automotive Company who has revolutionized the battery life for cars and removed the traditional engine, to the benefits of using any plant that grows well in our culture to produce alcohol that will run our transportation.  The argument against ethanol being hazardous to our food supply is also shown to be a red herring as one of the by-products of producing ethanol from corn is the type of corn-based grain that works well for our agricultural feeds for cattle.

We also see independent gas station owners, which make up 1/3 of all such owners, that are thriving when they offer gasoline, as well as E-15, E-30, and E-85 ethanol blends.  With electric cars being produced, and other fuel sources being engineered, distribution would actually work well if consumers were given the choice.

One of the more compelling arguments is how easy it is to simply upgrade the car computer system with a simple software update to allow your current engine to run on these various fuels.  At most, a $150 fix could end up giving us choice and savings at the pump now. The only problem? Under current law, it is illegal to put anything other than the recommended manufacture’s fuel into your car, or to change the car computer settings.

Pump doesn’t seek to win an ideological debate as much as a practical one.  Will Americans rise up and demand that our politicians honor our tradition of free-market economics to give us choice in the type of fuel we use, just as we have an abundance of choices in virtually every other aspect of our life?  This solution also appeals to those individuals who just don’t want to drive a small car.  By making changes now to what fuel we can use in our engines, people with SUV’s, trucks, etc. would have access to cheaper fuel that is less and less based on oil, but is using items we can grow in our local community. In other words, they could still drive what they want.

The notion of sustainability within each community isn’t far fetched as it seems, but it is played up here as an over-the-top argument that the oil companies would surely despise.  If there is a villain in this seemingly pro-market documentary, it is the corporations who have sought to block the legislation that would provide this type of choice.  It is framed as a deliberate attempt on the part of these companies to ensure the profitability of the companies at the expense of the consumer.  On one hand this is logical since the interest of the business and the people it employees is profitability, but it also ignores the other research and development that does come from the oil companies that isn’t just about what we pump into our cars.

Pump: The Movie is narrated by Jason Bateman and opens this weekend.