This piece was cross-posted at mgyerman.com.
On April 19th, to coincide with Earth Day and the first anniversary of the oil spill in the Gulf, the documentary Gas Hole was released on DVD. Directed by Scott D. Roberts and Jeremy Wagener, the film gives an overview of the history of American oil companies…and the country’s dependence on their product. It is presented alongside the possibility that options for alternative fuel have been surreptitiously sabotaged. Throughout the movie, there is a menace in the air that recalls the Silkwood affair.
For Roberts, the questions started when he read a letter in a Northern Californian town newspaper. It was written by Ken Kunde, who claimed to have witnessed a water-injected carburetor that gave drivers 100 miles per gallon. On screen, Kunde relates the tale of a man who developed the concept and sold the patent to Shell Oil, making him a millionaire. However, the sale came with a condition. He could use the one that he had invented for his own use, but he could not produce any others.
This information sent Roberts and Wagener on a three-year exploration of other technologies that were also suppressed under suspect circumstances. Prominent among them was Tom Ogle and his fuel system invention, the “vapor engine,” where two gallons of gas yielded 200 miles per gallon. Ogle died mysteriously, and his “Oglemobile” disappeared. But the question remained, why would oil companies want to suppress these innovations?
The filmmakers lay out the timeline and backstory on the birth of the American oil companies, which is essentially a narrative about John D. Rockefeller. Understanding the benefit in consolidating companies, Rockefeller bought out smaller producers who were in financial trouble. Often, he would “sweat a competitor,” a method that forced them to sell out. Through moving into both refining and shipping, by 1899 his Standard Oil company had virtually gained total control of the industry. Rockefeller’s assertion that his goal was a move toward stabilization was disputed in the first journalistic exposé of oil price fixing and predatory business practices in The History of the Standard Oil Company, written by Ida Tarbell in 1904. In 1906, Standard Oil was accused of being a monopoly, and was broken up into twenty subsidiaries. This yielded twenty regional monopolies, which become even richer. Simple graphics show how the current international major companies referred to as the “Seven Sisters” were all direct descendents of Standard Oil. With these insights, the viewer is better able to understand the larger picture.
Before the turn of the 20th century, in 1893, Rudolf Diesel developed a fuel source based on peanut energy. He said, “The use of vegetable oil for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum.” His demise is also shrouded in mystery, and his engine invention moved forward — using oil.
News footage traces American presidents expounding upon the need for energy independence. It begins with Richard Nixon in 1974 telling the country, “We must provide for our own energy needs.” It follows Ford and Jimmy Carter, who in 1980 stated, “Independence on foreign oil is a clear and present danger to our national security.”
Thirty-one years later, despite being aware of the political implications and understanding that if we use less petroleum there will be less pollution, the country has yet to address the problem. Kriss Moller, Founder of ConservFuel, a platform to amplify the alternative fuel dialogue, observes dryly, “It’s going to take a tidal wave coming over Los Angeles for people to realize there’s a correlation [between the oil market and the factors of weather and politics].
Nothing speaks louder than the highlighted C-SPAN clips from the oil hearings on Capitol Hill, when the testifying executives who are earning salaries in the millions, refused to be sworn in under oath. It is noted that the two Chairmen of the panel received a combined 1.5 million dollars from the coffers of the oil companies. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) declared, “As long as I am Chairman, regulating global warming is off the table indefinitely. I don’t want there to be any uncertainty about that.” Barton would later make headlines in 2010 with his apology to BP CEO Tony Heyward.
The stats for campaign contributions on both sides of the aisle are astounding. Since 1990, oil and gas companies have contributed $49,027,504 to Democrats and $150,588,788 to Republicans. Despite these dismal numbers, there are those in the House and Senate who have been asking the hard questions about America’s addiction to oil, and looking for accountability.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) has been a strong advocate for reducing American dependency on fossil fuels. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) has served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee since 1995. She explains, with an air of disappointment, that Congress is a “reactive rather than a pro-active body.” She makes it clear that she is working on behalf of her constituents, and not the oil corporations.
“Bush and Cheney were way too close to the oil industry to give it the kind of scrutiny it needs,” suggests Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). Having served as New Mexico’s State Attorney General and as a Congressman, Udall wrote and passed legislation to establish a national renewable electricity standard. He has served on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and firmly believes that our national policy has been influenced by oil — pointing out that America produces 8 percent of the world’s supply to the Middle-East’s 66 percent.
Throughout the documentary, questions are put forth and examined. They include:
- When crude went up 12 cents a gallon, why did gasoline elevate to 60 cents more a gallon?
- Where are the record profits coming from?
- How is the price of oil set? Are U.S. oil companies damaging the country’s economy with their prices?
- Do the oil and automobile industries work in collusion by having consumers believe that safety and fuel efficiency aren’t synonymous?
- What is the role of advertising in influencing the consumer?
- What’s the incentive for oil companies to embrace alternative fuel options?
- How do you get people to change their behavior to benefit the collective?
It should be noted that the filmmakers contacted Chevron and Shell for interviews. They both declined. Fear of retribution from the oil companies impacted Wagener and Roberts while they were in production and distribution. People were afraid to speak on the record, and threats were made to potential sponsors of the film’s tour.
Roberts advocates for people to check out how their elected officials are voting on oil industry regulation, industry tax cuts, campaign contributors, and alternative fuel.
Once again, it comes down to the power and determination of the individual.