Editorial: The Truth About Fuel, Part Three: Victory!

Eric Stepans
by Eric Stepans
editorial the truth about fuel part three victory

In his farewell speech (the one about the military-industrial complex), President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans, “As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” As any oil company CEO (cough, Dick Cheney, cough) will tell you, Eisenhower’s words point to personal virtue, but shareholders want profits today not resources tomorrow. Thankfully, some take Eisenhower’s words to heart. One such person is Josh Tickell, the creator, director, and protagonist of the impressive documentary film Fuel.

Fuel chronicles Tickell’s personal journey through the dark side of America’s petroleum addiction, his efforts to promote alternatives, and his vision of a sustainable plentiful future.

Tickell grew up in the harsh reality of modern Louisiana, the land for which the term “environmental racism” was coined. The refineries and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River have fouled much of the land, water and air in the area. All of this contamination has led to a “cancer alley” and reproductive problems for the people living there, including Tickell’s own mother who suffered nine miscarriages and numerous illnesses.

Angered by the personal and environmental damage cause by petroleum, Tickell began looking for alternatives. While studying on an organic farm in Germany, he had his first encounter with biodiesel fuel. To Tickell, this was the answer to his hopes: a safe sane sustainable fuel that didn’t require invading Middle Eastern countries or dumping toxic sludge in bayous.

Thus inspired, Tickell came back to the US in 1997, bought an old diesel-powered motorhome, christened it “VeggieVan,” and toured the country (entirely fueled by used fry oil) preaching the potential of biodiesel. That tour turned into an 11-year odyssey through the growing pains of the biofuels business. Along the way, Tickell experienced both exuberant highs, such as the Carl’s Corner truck stop in Texas converting to biodiesel, and soul-crushing lows, such as when the first “biofuels are bad” articles began appearing.

His deepest low came with Hurricane Katrina. Tickell saw the hurricane (possibly made worse by global warming), and the resulting damage, chaos, and mismanagement as a rejection of all he had been advocating.

However, after helping with the relief effort (in a biodiesel-fueled boat), and seeing the people of Louisiana pulling together to help each other, Tickell had a change of attitude. In his own words, “I stopped fighting from anger . . . and I started looking for partners.” Those partners have ideas that just might save industrialized society.

There are two main objections to biofuels: one economic and one physical. Critics note that biofuels are more expensive than conventional fuels. This criticism is largely specious, because petroleum is subsidized by transferring most of the social, political and environmental externalities away from the price at the pump. In Tickell’s words, “Make the oil companies pay for [his mother’s nine miscarriages]. How much would a gallon of gasoline cost then?”

The physical argument is more valid. Not all biofuels contain more energy than it takes to make them, and some biofuel practices (such as cutting down rain forest to grow palm oil trees) are more destructive than helpful. Tickell knows this and is explicitly against such techniques. The focus of Fuel, and the solution to our petroleum addition, is sustainable biofuels.

Two of the most promising technologies on this front are algae-based biodiesel and biomass-based alcohol. Algal biodiesel started with a Carter-era research effort called the Aquatic Species program. Thanks to 30 years of research and development, we can now feed algae CO2 from power plants, water from sewage treatment plants and ambient sunlight, and have them excrete ready-to-use biodiesel fuel.

Other companies are making similar progress in converting other waste products (e.g., municipal garbage, agricultural waste, wood chips, etc.) into alcohol. Still other companies are researching ways to grow biomass on marginal lands unsuitable for food crops.

The genius of these technologies, unlike fossil fuels, is that they are sustainable. So long as people breathe, throw away trash and go to the bathroom, we will have CO2, biomass and wastewater.

Biofuels alone will not solve the world’s petroleum addiction, and Fuel spends considerable time discussing how an array of technologies may do the trick.

Those technologies range from the mundane (energy efficiency, public transportation, etc.), to the emergent (solar and wind power, plug-in hybrid cars), to the exotic (30-story urban vertical farms), but they all have a part to play.

The ultimate message of Fuel, unlike most environmental documentaries, is one of hope not doom. President Jimmy Carter made energy efficiency and alternative fuels sound like a trip to the principal’s office. Tickell, in contrast, sees a clean, sustainable, balanced energy future, and in such a future the truth is that there’s fuel enough for everyone.

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  • U mad scientist U mad scientist on Mar 20, 2009
    Or, in the alternative, the next time that we start a war in order to secure our long-term access to oil, we had better be sure to win it. This is more a nitpick, but a misconception nonetheless. There isn't enough oil there to justify the amount of money spent. The economic oil-related goal seems more likely for additional sources of profit for some companies. External costs indeed. -- For "oil" that runs cars, we still have a ways to go as long as we're willing to pay more $ since once the easy to pump stuff peaks, there's the low grade convertible crud all over. Europe has already shown $10 gas to be viable as long as people crowd together so it isn't all doom and gloom. If anything, the electricity problem is easier to solve since tech to improve conservation in many places is cost of microchips away, ie the cost tends to taper out. A more interesting question would be population growth trends as that may be more unpredictable since there are cultural factors.
  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Mar 20, 2009

    All I've got to say is diversity. Diversity of consumption (the way we get around) and diversity of source (not everything delivered by diesel powered trucks and consumed by people driving gasoline powered vehicles). Get solar up on rooftops, wind out to where it works, and battery cars on the roads where they work best. Get Chevron to license the NiMH batteries they bought from GM and then shelved. That would ease the pressure on the coal powered plants, and the hydro installations where the lakes levels compete with drinking water sources and making electricity. That would put zero emissions vehicles on our roads in our cities whenever possible and should reduce pollution. Carry long distance freight on trains vs trucks and understand how resource intensive JIT manufacturing is. Understand how taxes favor trucks over trains. Understand how trucks affect our road safety, our air quality, and the frequency of road maintenance. Start to redesign our cities and suburbs so that the folks who want to spend their time without a car - CAN. Its time for otherwise intelligent Americans to understand how they may actually be spending more money driving to discount big box retailers over smaller options closer to home. My grandmother will drive 20 mins up/down a mountain to go to Wal-mart so she can save $5 on her grocery trip. There is a nice large well stocked grocery store 5 mins from her house that she avoids b/c the prices are a little higher. Meanwhile she laments that the Kmart, and two other grocery stores near the Wal-Mart are going out of business. Won't quit Wal-Mart though... "I know" she says when reminded how these things happen - and keeps going to Wal-Mart. That's as bad as a germophobe I know that won't quit smoking. Germs on the kitchen counter are bad but carcinogens from smoking isn't??? I figure what will happen is we will poison the environment to a point where there is some epidemic of health issues before we accept that only personal responsibility by everyone will actually drive change in this country. The big money makers want to keep making money so they won't change. People want their easy suburban lives so they won't change. Politicians don't want to make hard choices so they won't foster change. We'll either have a quick succession of periods where we buy VERY expensive gas like last summer on steroids or we'll have a generation or two of unhealthy babies (see Russian pollution effects) or somebody will have to come out with some CHEAP alternative that makes gasoline seem silly. Since I don't think there is any single silver bullet, why don't we get on with making more sophisticated choices that have positive long term consequences. I don't like either political party in their country - we need a better third alternative - but I'll side with whoever doesn't want to go to war for fossil fuels and whoever wants to get off their duff and make some tough decisions and reshape America. If that means we get more European style cities with trolleys, stacked housing, high taxes on thirsty vehicles (or the large quantities of fuel that they consume) then fine! If that means suburban people (like me) reorganize their beighborhoods so they can walk/bike to Mom&Pop markets and neighborhood schools then great. If that means we have 25 small schools in neighborhoods vs 3 school buldings serving hundreds then so be it. Let those scmaller schools have roving administrations shared with other schools. My guess is that we'll just keep going until the last drop is burned and our society will become more like many 3rd world countries where a few have a lot and the rest of us get by on much less. I don't want gov't intervention but not enough people are going to make changes for themselves so it'll take gov't intervention. Kind of like putting pollution controls on cars back in the early 70s. Nobody running down to get a catalytic converter installed on their Dodge Dart out of a sense of personal responsibility (not that it would have quite that easy with a carbureted engine). I liked the CA CARB idea - if you are going to sell cars here then a small percentage of them will have to be zero emissions. Accomplish that any way you'd like...

  • Inside Looking Out The next 4Runner will be BEV.
  • The Oracle This is a proper Italian red sauce turd.
  • Carson D This isn't a notice of a wait time for 4Runner fans. This is a deadline for the opportunity to buy one new before they're gone. Whatever comes next, there is no possible way that it will be as good at doing 4Runner things as what is available today.
  • Bkojote There's a lot "just right" with the current 4Runner, and having spent time in more contemporary equivalents for road trips, I completely understand why they sell a ton of these.Here's some topics that aren't super common among 4runner owners - excessive carbon buildup in the engine after 40,000 miles (Audi/VW), bent valves (Bronco) , failed oil coolers (Jeep), cracked engine blocks (Jeep), dead vehicles from OTA updates (Chevy Colorado), being stranded due to opening the door too many times (Defender), malfunctioning engine sensors (Defender, VW), dead batteries due to electrical system malfunctions (Jeep), unusable defoggers (Jeep), waiting for seat heaters to boot up (Subaru), randomly catching fire (Kia/Hyundai), crappy build quality (Ford, Tesla).The interior feels solid and rattle free, and everything feels substantial in the way a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Kia Telluride does not. 14 year run means accessories are plentiful and well sorted. The control inputs from the radio to heated seats to climate control work better than 99% of the cars you can buy new at this point and are dead simple and ergonomically satisfying. Even dynamically (I drove a model with the KDSS system to be fair) it is a surprisingly composed vehicle on mountain roads- it's far more civilized than a Bronco or Wrangler, and hell, it was far more pleasant than the past two peastant-grade Benz crapmobiles I've been in.So I get it- car journalist rags whine about how overly complicated and tech-heavy modern vehicles are while their substance is cost cut, but here's the literal definition of 'don't fix it if it aint broken.' . It's a trusty Ford Econoline in a world of craptastic Ram ProMasters.
  • Frank Sounds like they dont want to debut it at the same time as the new Land Cruiser, which is probably smart. The new 'runner is ready to go I am told, so there's a reason for this delay.