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The Hero of Biofuel Documentary FUEL? Algae.

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By Debbie Van Der Hyde

Like the Veggie Van he drove across the country, Josh Tickell’s documentary FUEL covers a lot of territory to make a point: our reliance on oil must change.

Tickell advocates biofuels as the answer. His message is “Change your fuel, change your world.” Over the course of two hours, Tickell takes a meandering route, weaving personal perspective with at least 50 insightful interviews recorded during the 11 years it took to make the film.

Ultimately, FUEL works, coming full circle to deliver the substance behind Tickell’s message of change. He is a passionate believer in sustainably-made biofuels. Watching the documentary might make Sierra Club Green Home readers believe too.

Starting slowly
FUEL is delivered as a sort of stream of consciousness from Tickell. The film begins by depicting how oil reserves were originally formed and how oil is now the lifeblood of our society.

“It heats us, cools us, feeds us, takes us where we need to go,” Tickell says, then describes the numerous problems of our oil dependence, effectively poking a hole in the tank.

To explain why he’s spent his life searching for solutions, FUEL takes an autobiographical tangent. Tickell describes his youth in Australia and the stark differences, like oil refineries and toxic waterways, he found when his family moved to Louisiana.

Later, while pursuing his college degree, Tickell worked on an organic farm in Germany where he witnessed a farmer pouring vegetable oil into his tractor. The idea of alternative fuel ignited, and Tickell became obsessed with bringing biofuels to America.

One of the results of this fixation was a two-year Veggie Van USA Tour to promote biofuels. Tickell filled the van with cooking oil “harvested” from fast food restaurants. He gave lectures and appeared on talk shows. But no big culture change occurred.

Then 9/11 happened. In the film, Tickell asks the question: “Did our choice of fuel lead to this?”

Picking up the pace
To answer, FUEL ventures into the educational arena. The film describes the process oil companies use to create gasoline and explores what led the auto industry to rely on gas engines instead of ethanol. He also poignantly notes that diesel engines can run on vegetable oil without any modifications. So why aren’t we switching? And what will we do when our oil reserves run out?

FUEL gains speed to respond. The film reviews America’s reaction to the 1973 oil shortage and the Carter administration’s ambitious program to reduce oil dependence. This progress was followed by the about-face policies of the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations.

Tickell also notes that America isn’t the only country that suffers from an oil addiction. He looks at how people in other countries demanded energy from renewable materials, and their governments responded by investing in solar, wind, and biofuel.

Coming to a sudden stop
But even the government cannot control natural disasters. During the making of FUEL, Hurricane Katrina hit Tickell’s home state, spilling nine million gallons of oil. The film takes another detour as he talks to climate scientists about the effects of global warming.

Compelled to help, Tickell joined a relief mission for Katrina victims. Although he started the trip angry that government and industry refused to take responsibility for the oil spill, he was transformed by the experience of aiding hurricane victims, saying “It’s going to take everyone to fix this.” Tickell’s epiphany led to coordinated action through partnerships, including interviews with celebrities and politicians who appear in the film.

Then, in another unexpected turn, Tickell encountered a media-made disaster. Science Magazine published an article on the potential dangers of biodiesel, which essentially slammed the brakes on the biofuels movement. Tickell now asks: “Was everything he’d done harming the environment?”

Tickell answers this food versus fuel debate by describing how ethanol is created from corn for gas engines and biofuel from soy for diesel engines. He agrees that biofuel from monocrop corn and soy fields, which require fertilizers and pesticides, is not the answer.

Returning to the road
The remainder of the documentary takes a positive turn by covering how to make biofuels sustainable by producing them with waste, camelina, or even the original source of our oil reserves: algae. According to experts in the film, algae can double its cell mass in a few hours. When burned, algae-based biofuel doesn’t add additional CO2 to the atmosphere.

As FUEL rolls to a stop, Tickell acknowledges that biofuels are a critical part of solution, but not the whole solution. The film takes quick side trips to look at biomass, wind, solar, hybrid and electric vehicles, and energy conservation.

Tickell sums his filmmaking trip with: “We have an infinite abundance of resources that can sustain every living human being. The choice is ours. The rest of the journey is up to you.”


For a review of Fuel‘s sequel, Freedom:
Will Oil Alternatives Free Us?


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