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. 

POLL: Most Americans would back US strike over Iran nuclear weapon

A majority of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence that Tehran is building nuclear weapons, even if such action led to higher gasoline prices, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

The poll showed 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence of a nuclear weapon program. Thirty-nine percent of Americans opposed military strikes.

Asked whether they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, 53 percent of Americans said they would, while 42 percent said they would not.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll also found that 62 percent of Americans would back Israel taking military action against Iran for the same reasons.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said all options are on the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but he has encouraged Israel to give sanctions against Iran more time to have an effect.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Higher gasoline prices, which have risen in part due to tension in the Middle East, have put political pressure on Obama as he fights for re-election later this year.

The president, a Democrat, has also faced criticism from his potential Republican rivals for being too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

The poll showed Republicans were more willing to support military action by the United States or Israel than Democrats. Seventy percent of Republicans would back U.S. action, while 46 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents said the same.

The breakdown was similar when respondents were asked to factor in gasoline prices or their support of an Israeli military move.

“What we’re seeing is kind of a general trend that we always see, that Republicans tend to be more hawkish than Democrats or independents,” said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young. “Historically Republicans have been much more security-centric.”

A potential conflict with Iran has cast a foreign policy shadow over the U.S. election, which is expected to be dominated by voter concerns over the domestic economy.

Obama accused Republican presidential candidates earlier this month of “beating the drums of war” while failing to consider the consequences.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of the top Republican presidential contenders, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC: “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”

Despite Americans’ signs of tolerance of higher gasoline prices in the poll, Obama’s chances of getting re-elected are threatened by rising prices at the pump.

The poll was conducted from March 8-11 among 1,084 adults across the United States. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Eight (pricey) nights

Prop. 87 fuels high octane fight on oil production tax

In August 2006, the average price of gasoline in California was $3.20 per gallon. Today, with the summer demand faded, it still hovers at $2.60. Politicians and interest groups know that Californians want answers and solutions, and they also know that the election season is upon them.

Next month, California voters will take sides in what has been an epic battle over Proposition 87, called the Clean Energy Alternative Act.

The stakes include a proposed $4 billion state tax on oil production, which would be spent on development of alternative fuels and theoretically change the amount of oil California needs to import from the Middle East, especially for gasoline. California is the fourth-largest oil producing state in the United States and the No. 1 gasoline consumer.

On one side, Hollywood producer and prominent Jewish Democrat Steven Bing is backing the initiative. Against him stand the nation’s largest oil corporations. Weeks before Election Day, Proposition 87 is already at the center of a $105 million spending spree by partisans on both sides, breaking the record for any single initiative on a California ballot. Bing alone donated approximately $40 million.

On the other side are the oil companies, which claim the measure would force them to fund an unaccountable state handout.

The fundamental idea behind Proposition 87 is that corporations extracting oil from California lands would have to pay a new tax into a state account, called the California Energy Independence Fund. The complicated tax would vary, depending on the market price of a barrel of oil, but the most likely interpretation puts the new fee on a $70 barrel of California oil at about $2.17. Once $4 billion in taxes is collected this way, or after 10 years at the latest, the levy would cease to exist.

More than half of the anticipated $4 billion would be used to subsidize public vehicles, such as school buses and garbage trucks that run on alternative fuels, and to fund private research institutions to develop and manufacture new fuel sources. More than a quarter of the money would go to universities for work on renewable energy sources and to community colleges for vocational training in the field. The rest would fund alternative energy start-up companies and public education programs.

One major goal is a 25 percent reduction in petroleum use for transportation in the state over the next 10 years, but in general, the California Energy Alternatives Program Authority, which Proposition 87 would create, would have a great deal of discretion on spending. The measure contains numerous examples of the type of programs that could qualify for funding.

However, there are far fewer strict guidelines for what would be excluded. This is where the greatest problem with the measure lies, said Scott McDonald of the “No on 87” campaign.
“They have specifically excluded themselves from the state’s contracting and bidding regulations,” he said.

The law allows employees of grantee organizations to be members on the authority board, raising the potential for conflicts of interest.

“There are no specifics in the initiative,” McDonald told The Journal. “There’s no requirement that [the tax money] will be spent in California or the United States, for that matter.”
Beth Willon of the “Yes on 87” campaign responded that despite critics’ doubts, “none of the members of the [authority’s] board can make any money from this.” Despite the looseness of membership requirements of the authority under the law, she said, members of the authority and any entities that they control cannot directly receive funds from it.

Another concern of critics is how the tax could affect the behavior of oil companies. Though the law and the global economics of oil would prevent them from directly passing the cost of the tax onto Californians in gas price increases, they may opt to import more expensive foreign oil if the tax makes “marginal wells” in California even less profitable to drill, McDonald said.

The “Yes on 87” campaign has attacked all those claims, most recently with a TV ad featuring former Vice President Al Gore arguing that the fruits of the alternative fuel research funded by Proposition 87 will mean less dependence on foreign oil. In terms of marginally profitable wells, Proposition 87 seems to have foreseen the problem by enabling oil companies to deduct the new tax from their general corporate income taxes.

Latching onto the income tax concession like a sign of weakness, the “No on 87” campaign has in recent advertisements argued that withheld corporate income taxes would reduce available General Fund revenue for the state to spend on schools. The proposed tax deduction counters the prediction that the initiative would increase foreign oil imports due to lost oil profits, and with a potential impact of at most $14 million, it is not likely to impact the education budget, which for 2005-06 stood at $58 billion.

Advocates for the measure include high-profile Democratic Party supporters, such as former President Bill Clinton, Gore, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as the L.A. City Council by a 10-1 vote. The local Progressive Jewish Alliance also supports Proposition 87 and has issued a position statement arguing that even if the tax increases the cost of gasoline in the short run, the higher cost would only encourage more California consumer adoption of alternative fuels.

Proposition 87, however, aspires to affect the international oil market, so a look at California state politics is not the end of the story. Gal Luft is co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, but he spoke to The Journal on his own behalf as an energy expert. Luft said the real question is whether Proposition 87 can actually accomplish its objectives, given the economics of oil and what its cost would be on a global scale.

“I think the goal of a 25 percent reduction in [petroleum] consumption in California within 10 years is completely unachievable,” Luft told The Journal. “There’s no way, period.”
Luft scoffed at the billions of dollars allocated in Proposition 87 for research into alternative fuels.