Review: Pump Documentary Takes on U.S. Oil Addiction

An ambitious, not-that-boring documentary takes on America’s oil addiction

Illustration by Jing Wei

Pump, which sounds like a workout video or some other form of private entertainment, begins with a bit of newsreelish history and a couple of surprising contentions. First, that Henry Ford initially designed his engines to run on ethanol. Second, that John D. Rockefeller funded the push for Prohibition in the early 20th century not to keep people from being overserved at bars, but to keep alcohol out of cars.

This is the second feature about ending America’s dependence on oil from the wife-husband team of Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell. They’re tub-thumpers, but not shrill. Their thrust is roughly that cars = freedom. Americans love their freedom, and they sure do love their cars. Yet strangely, car- and freedom-loving Americans lack freedom of choice when it comes to what their cars run on. What gives? Oil is far from the best fuel for an automobile—not even close, if you factor in extraction costs, energy security, and pollution.

The movie opened in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 19, and screenings are scheduled around the country, although these are almost pro forma. Pump is clearly aimed at streaming audiences and social media; it’s a campaign with a movie, instead of a candidate, at its core. The model could be Blackfish, the exposé that gained traction online and supernovaed on CNN, hurting sales and forcing reforms at SeaWorld. Pump’s trailer says it’s “the movie that will change everything.” That’s a bit much.

It helps immensely that Jason Bateman narrates the film. The Arrested Development star is a good match for the documentary’s tone of (mostly) bemused exasperation. He’s light but sincere—a likable know-it-all. Still, Pump is easily 30 minutes too long, and the editing makes the final third—much of which is plenty interesting—feel like a series of linked infomercials.

If the filmmaking gets a little rote, what the Tickells have to share is valuable. There was a moment late in the last decade when it seemed Americans might embrace ethanol for real. You’ll probably also recall hearing how the move to ethanol drove up food prices and led to food shortages. Never mind that a byproduct of ethanol production, distillers grains, makes a highly nutritive animal feed. Never mind, too, that surpluses of corn were getting destroyed even as that smear campaign gained traction. Lobbyists and marketers for oil interests succeeded in planting the idea that we had to choose between abundant food and abundant plant-based energy, and ethanol once again stalled. Here’s where the exasperation comes in: Higher oil prices actually drove up food prices, because of increased transportation costs.

Determined not to dwell on the negative, Pump introduces us to hobbyists, entrepreneurs, and even indie service station owners already making the break from petroleum. We get a few minutes with Elon Musk, the South African-born Silicon Valley rock star and maker of the Tesla Model S. Another notable segment highlights Robert Zubrin, who talks about the advantages of methanol, a wood-based alcohol fuel. Motorists who drive a lot make a compelling economic case for converting to liquefied natural gas. Not buying a new car anytime soon? Most contemporary cars can be modified to accept a variety of fuels—much as flex-fuel vehicles do—with a simple hack of your vehicle’s software.

There’s also a fun visit with some guys who race in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb outside Colorado Springs. It’s a demanding 2.42-mile course that climbs almost 5,000 vertical feet and includes 156 turns. These gearheads have already made the switch to methanol for performance reasons. For them, it really is a free country.

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