A recent Sundance award-winning documentary probes a potential solution to the United States’ addiction to oil: algae.
|Courtesy of Greenlight Theatrical
The Sundance Festival–winning film Fuel opens and closes with a simple single-celled organism: algae. The choice is appropriate. Much of the world’s oil and gas addiction relies on dwindling deposits of the ancient green goo that, over time, were transformed into fossil fuels, while our hope for a sustainable future may rest in a renewable version.
Sandwiched between these scenes showcasing the earth’s “original oil producers” are nearly two hours of impassioned arguments about how America’s attachment to oil explains our current political, energy, and environmental crises—from market forces to armed forces; from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina.
“There are problems with our use of oil. Serious problems,” says Josh Tickell. The director, also the film’s star, has dedicated more than a decade of his life to the issue. He admittedly “grew up hating oil companies”—blaming his mother’s nine miscarriages on fallout from Louisiana’s oil processing and highlighting a near disqualification from a state science fair when his analysis of local waterways resulted in higher levels of pollutants than tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency of Louisiana. The agency, Tickell notes, receives 90 percent of its funding from permits issued to oil companies.
The film looks back at how Tickell, while still in college, began to funnel his festering frustrations into finding a solution. Inspiration hit while studying abroad in Germany, where more than 1,900 filling stations offer biodiesel. The alternative boasted about 30 percent better fuel efficiency than standard oil; it also emitted far less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. “If this could catch on,” he remembers thinking when first bringing the idea home, “this could change the world.”
Fuel then follows Tickell as he crisscrosses America in attempts to spread the green energy gospel—driving a biodiesel-powered “Veggie Van” and holding handwritten signs in Times Square declaring “Biodiesel: No War Required” and “Homeland Security begins with Homeland Fuel.”
But switching to alternative fuels, Tickell quickly realizes, faces powerful resistance in the United States. Biofuels are not exactly a foreign concept here. Henry Ford designed his first Model T to run on ethanol alcohol, a fuel made from corn. But an amendment to the U.S. Constitution eventually forced him to convert his engine to burn oil. (John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, helped fund this prohibition amendment.) And the diesel engine is certainly familiar to any American who has ridden in a stinky yellow school bus. (Fortunately, today’s version does burn a lot cleaner than those of even a decade ago.) The engine’s inventor, Ralph Diesel, originally ran the machine on peanut oil. It wasn’t until his suspicious death, the film explains, that Standard Oil introduced the byproduct of oil distillation for use in the engines. This remains the primary diesel today, even though every diesel engine can just as easily run on biodiesel—without any modifications.
Tickell also points his finger at government subsidies for both gasoline and wasteful cars. These act as roadblocks, impeding progress that could both help revitalize domestic car companies and save consumers cash and about a third of their stops at the gas station. The average American car remains about 30 percent bigger—and consumes the same proportion more fuel—than those overseas. Altogether, the United States burns a quarter of the world’s oil while producing only 2 percent of it.
These precious remaining oil deposits took more than 150 million years to form from dead algae and other plants. Now, scientists are working to condense that process into just a few days to create one of the most promising sustainable biofuels to date. The film doesn’t address some of the controversial aspects of algae, including the inherent risks that come with genetic engineering. However, Tickell does explain how algae-based fuels avoid the destruction of rainforests and food crops that dooms other biofuels, such as those derived from corn or soy. “This could be it,” says Larry Hagman, who played a conniving oil baron on the 1980s television show, Dallas. “This could be the stuff that saves society.”
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