Since U.S. politicians seem permanently under the sway of the oil industry, “Pump” aims instead to educate average citizens so they’ll demand the market provide cheaper, cleaner, domestically produced alternatives to fossil fuels. This zippily edited docu aims less to chastise than to emphasize that solutions to our oil addiction and much-vaunted desire for energy independence are tantalizingly close at hand. Opening Sept. 19 at the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles, this carefully nonpartisan pic will face the usual issue-docu challenge of requiring substantial grassroots outreach efforts to be seen by the previously unconverted.
A former president of Shell Oil starts things off by introducing the notion that while Americans enjoy “incredible choice” as consumers in nearly all areas, they haven’t had true choice in how to fuel their cars for a century or more. A quick historical overview shows how the nation’s once-extensive electric trolley systems were systematically dismantled in favor of public buses in a Big Oil/automotive industry conspiracy for which the latter were duly found guilty (albeit too late) in Federal court.
While Henry Ford’s early cars were designed to be fuel-flexible, oil monopolist John Rockefeller killed that by helping to push through Prohibition, which outlawed production not just of liquor, but also of the alcohol-based fuel Ford had favored. When Middle Eastern politics triggered the oil crises of the 1970s, that should have naturally encouraged Americans to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles and diversified fuel sources. But instead, we simply increased our dependence on (and military presence in) foreign oil-producing nations.
Accounting for less than 5% of the world’s population but consuming more than 20% of its oil, the U.S. is seen here as having long backed itself into a corner at least partly responsible for wars, recessions, pollution and other woes. Producing less than half our own oil annually, we’ve recently turned to fracking technology, which extracts oil trapped in dense shale rock at a controversially high cost to the environment.
But after providing all this bad news, co-helmers Josh Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell (who previously took aim at Big Oil in “The Big Fix”) shift to stressing the good news: There are indeed less polluting, generally cheaper alternatives to gasoline that could be produced entirely here in the U.S., as much as the petroleum companies would prefer you didn’t know about them. Electric-car purchases are rising, albeit not nearly fast enough; ethanol, methanol and CNG (compressed natural gas) all have great advantages over gasoline. Few citizens know that most American cars already have the capacity for using “flex fuels,” requiring just a software adjustment.
But a mixture of government regulation and corporate muscle has kept many of these options hard to access. Less than 3% of gas stations currently offer alternative fuels, most being prevented by their franchise contracts; manufacturer and government strictures outlaw citizens from making some simple changes themselves that would render their vehicles ready to break the gasoline habit.
“The choice for a better future begins at the pump,” says voiceover narrator Jason Bateman at the end, before the end crawl provides various online and other resources. For unabashed agitprop, “Pump” is quite entertaining, drawing together colorful archival footage, interviewed experts and ordinary folk, as well as sojourns to China (in the wake of its economic boom now the world’s largest market for cars) and Brazil (whose shift to ethanol production brought prosperous energy dependence), in a lively, professional package.