October 17, 2018

The new documentary ‘Pump’ asks society to question its fuel choices

It’s already been 13 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in that time we’ve come to understand the difficult geopolitical situation that our oil dependence has put us in.

In order to keep our cars running, the United States needs to keep the leaders of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries happy. What happens if they’re not happy? Well, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the shock waves it sent through the global economy taught us that oil can be a powerful weapon. And the film points out that the cost of military installations to protect our oil supply far surpasses the cost of oil itself — not to mention the lives of troops sent to fight overseas.

The new documentary “Pump,” which is now in limited release in Los Angeles and New York, raises an important question: In an age where we have seemingly infinite options of what phone to buy, what clothes to wear and what food to eat, why are we forced to put only gasoline in our cars?

“This movie is about solutions,” said Josh Tickell, the director of “Pump.” “The biggest solution that we have in America is competition. Competition drives innovation, innovation drives development, development drives cheaper prices and better products. And we haven’t had much innovation in terms of the thing that we put in our vehicles.”

“Pump” was funded by Fuel Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Israeli software entrepreneurs Yossie Hollander and Eyal Aronoff. Aronoff lost his father in the 1967 Six-Day War, and on 9/11, Aronoff’s step-brother and his new wife were killed in the World Trade Center attack. Aronoff said that freeing America from its dependence on imported oil will lead to greater security from the threat of radical Islam.

“ISIL sells 50,000 to 60,000 oil barrels a day. If there’s no demand for oil, they have no money,” he said of the militant terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria. 

“Someone is paying for all these rockets from Gaza into Israel. We remove this oil money, we remove the ability to pay for the rockets.”

Aronoff concedes that a strong political movement is needed to change the status quo. 

“When oil prices go up, the economy goes into recession, and we change the political leadership. So leaders do everything possible to keep oil prices down. That means catering to the demands of regimes that we would otherwise never agree to,” he said.

The film points to several key moments in history that ensured our nation’s continued dependence on gasoline. Oil companies banded together to buy up and dismantle the electric streetcar system in the country. John D. Rockefeller, the billionaire founder of Standard Oil, used his power to influence Congress to pass Prohibition laws, in order to keep Henry Ford from fueling his cars with corn alcohol, or ethanol. And the construction of the interstate highway system encouraged suburban sprawl.

The U.S. represents 4.5 percent of the world’s population but uses 20 percent of the world’s oil. While the film shows that hydraulic fracturing and other oil extraction methods have ramped up in the U.S., the country can’t produce enough oil to meet its growing demand.

If the situation is dire now, it will only get worse, as the demand for cars increases in the developing world. In China, a car is the ultimate status symbol, and residents there will pay tens of thousands of dollars just to acquire a coveted license plate. Fewer than 1 million cars were sold in China in 2000; by 2013, the film states, the number had jumped to 15.5 million.

“Pump” finds hope in some of today’s entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors, and in Brazil, which relies primarily on locally produced ethanol derived from sugarcane. The movie points out that most cars are “flex fuel” vehicles and have the ability to operate on other fuel types, either through a software upgrade or by installing an inexpensive kit in the engine. 

Actor Jason Bateman narrates “Pump” and, at 87 minutes, the film uses flashy visual effects and extensive archival footage to present a compelling argument for more choices at the pump. But ultimately, it’s the question of whether drivers take things into their own hands that will decide whether “Pump” has its intended effect.

“Pump,” being screened at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles through Sept. 25, opens at Pasadena Playhouse 7 on Sept. 26.