Smart Energy Living - December 2011

Movie Review:

By: Phil von Hake

     “We’re not addicted, just spoiled.”

     So says the latest (and very industry-friendly) look at PeakOil and ways to avoid major energy crises.

     I salute Mark Mathis, though, for having the guts to make his own foray into the world of Peak Oil. Mathis is a former TV journalist (based mostly in New Mexico) turned media-relations consultant. When he took on an oil company as a client about ten years ago, he soon realized how much he had to bone up on the industry. The more he learned, the more he realized how many challenges lay ahead for the oil industry, and indeed for all of human civilization. His own decade of research has culminated in spOILed, a 90-minute documentary that attempts to help us “fill up on truth.”

     SpOILed begins by analyzing President George W. Bush’s declaration that “America is addicted to oil” in his 2006 State of the Union Address. After a round of discussion from various experts, spOILed asserts that America is actually addicted to the internal combustion engine. I would personally take it one step further to assert that most modern humans are addicted to mobility: walking, horses, bikes, cars,bigger cars and trucks, boats, planes, and even telephones  and the Internet help feed our addiction to get somewhere else almost constantly. But since so much of our mobility needs are met with petroleum-powered transport, I have no problem saying that I too am quite addicted to oil.

     The movie then provides a standard but serviceable introduction to Peak Oil. It includes interviews with Robert Hirsch and the late Matthew Simmons, two people from whom I’ve also learned much about this issue through the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. Unfortunately, Mathis soon shows his conservative leanings with other interviews from representatives of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and similar groups. One particularly vexing aspect of spOILed is how much it criticizes the work of “politicians” like New Mexico Democrats Bill Richardson, Tom Udall, and Jeff Bingaman, yet treats Republicans like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce in much the same way it treats actual experts like Hirsch and Simmons.

     spOILed then goes on to deride the “Eco Guilt” of the past 40+ years, directing particular attention to “elite environmental organizations [e.g., Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc.] with their billion-dollar endowments” who force their climate change agendas on the rest of us. I don’t know if Mathis ran out of time in final production, but the movie also mentions the “Climategate”scandal that broke just before the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change in late 2009.What they fail to mention is that six different committees have investigated charges of trumped-up climate alarmism since then and found absolutely no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct. This new information doesn’t feed the overall narrative, however, so only the original accusations made it into this movie.

     Then spOILed turnsits attention to Big Oil in an effort to debunk some “widely-held myths.” The movie makes some valid points in this sequence about how the giants of today’s oil industry are not the usual suspects like Exxon-Mobil,BP, and Shell… but actually government-owned companies like Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and Petrobras. Oil company profits may regularly run into the tens of billions of dollars every quarter, but their profit margins remain consistent around 8% … far lower margins than those of the IT, food & beverage, financial, or pharmaceutical industries. There are then quaint scenes of small independent oil exploration companies that form the real backbone of America’s oil industry. I’ll grant them all of this, but still feel like I’m about to be sold something.

     When it comes to solutions, spOILed finds little or no hope in ideas like alternative fuel vehicles (e.g., electric, hybrids, or fuel cells), any renewable energy sources, or mass transit. The movie even trots out Randal O’Toole to heap additional scorn on all forms of commuter rail.
spOILed does see natural gas as an attractive short-term solution for both our transportation and electricity needs. And while the movie doesn’t go much deeper than that, you can sense the contempt that Mathis (and almost everybody else in the theater other than me, for that matter) has for other documentaries like Gasland which dare to question what’s really in the thousands of gallons of fracking fluids being pumped into the ground.

     Finally (and as expected at this point), spOILed makes its Big Reveal. All levels of government throughout America place far too many tax, regulatory, and other burdens on the oil industry. If America is to survive Peak Oil and the supply crises that are just “One Moment Away,” then it must let the oil industry develop (“responsibly, of course”) its proven reserves off the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. We must also finally open up that small piece of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (i.e., “the equivalent of five one-dollar bills laid out on a basketball court”) to get at the supposedly billion-plus barrels of oil underneath. As these scenes kept playing out on the screen, my mind couldn’t get past that three-word chant from the2008 Republican Convention: “Drill Baby Drill!”

     I appreciated Mathis holding a Q&A after the movie, and especially appreciated his additional one-on-one time outside the theater. I had dozens of questions and critiques for him, but did my best to boil it downto one: Why were there only two or three  passing mentions of efficiency and conservation throughout the entire movie? He referred me to The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark Mills. I hadn’t heard of this book before, but its subtitle– The Twilight Of Fuel, The Virtue Of Waste, And Why We Will Never Run Out Of Energy – makes its thoughts on the subject quite clear. As for conservation, Mathis said that it only occurs when prices become too high, thus leading to “demand destruction.” His closing quote to my question was that “the machine (i.e., continued oil exploration) has to be allowed to run while we learn how to adapt.”

     While there was plenty of one-sided thinking and circular logic throughout the film and discussion, I nevertheless appreciated Mathis’s attempt to have what he calls a “reality-based conversation” about our future energy needs. And while spOILed might represent not much more than his own version of reality, some additional input from “environmental elites” – and especially some more discussion of efficiently using  and conserving the precious amounts of oil we have left – would certainly help bring more people from more varied backgrounds and beliefs into this vital conversation.

     I must include my own mea culpa in this review, since Peak Oil is an issue I’ve been following closely for the past decade. I remain convinced that the peaking and eventual decline in global petroleum supplies is a mathematical certainty. I’ve even started turning the “Peak Oil Riot Act” presentation I’ve been giving around Colorado over the past several years into a book. But the continuing news about advanced drilling techniques, secondary recovery from conventional sources, new (and increasing) supplies of unconventional oil coming out of the Alberta tar sands,North Dakota’s Bakken shale, and so on has led me to believe that, even if Peak Oil remains an eventual mathematical certainty, not many people will be hip to my rhyme in light of these current events. Long Story Short, my Peak Oil Riot Act (book and presentation) is on hold until I can get a look at a lot more current data.

     Mathis hopes to inject this movie and conversation into the 2012 election season. As the primary elections, cable news shout-fests, and other features of our current political hellscape show, too many people are only singing in front of their own like-minded choirs. Maybe the best way to have a real discussion on Peak Oil would be for Mathis and Gasland director Josh Fox go on tour for a series of Liddy-Leary-style discussions. Both sides have to acknowledge that THE truth lies somewhere in between their respective movies, and that’s a discussion I’m eager to join!

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