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“Pump”: An In-Depth Look at the Effects of Big Oil’s Monopoly—and How America Can Break It

October 10, 2014


Not often do small town farm kids from Kansas make it to Hollywoods big screen, but I am fortunate enough to be one of those, if even for just a few seconds. The opportunity to be a part of an educational effort of this scale is not only rewarding, it is exciting. The opportunity was created from our war for consumer choice and led to the creation of Pump, a new documentary from director Joshua Tickell, the filmmaker behind such similar projects as Fuel and Freedom. Pump explores the history of the American fueling infrastructure, how it has led to todays oil-dominated market, and what we can do to break petroleums stranglehold. Americans have long been fed up with having to pay high prices for oil, but how many know how we ended up with the current system in place? Pump sets up its premise with a look at todays fueling economy through the lens of history. America at the turn of the century, as it explains, had the greatest mass transit system in the world. A conspiracy amongst the automotive and oil companies infamously destroyed that network, leading to the car-dependent culture we have in 2014. Its no secret that Americans love the independence that the car gives over mass transit. However, the problem, which the film demonstrates, is that the independence gained was at the expense of choice at the pump choice that had been available since the dawn of the automobile itself. While ethanol was a common sight at fuel pumps in Henry Fords day, the United States today is essentially a hostage to the oil cartel. As one featured speaker adequately puts it, The oil companies invented the pump They control it. There is no competition. This reality has a crippling effect on Americans every single day, as the film makes painfully clear. Youve got to choose: do you want to go to the movies with your kids or do you want to buy gas? asks one driver. These hard choices have had to be made far too often over the past few decades. Images of long lines during the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 are still fresh in our collective memory. Pump accurately points out that although America has expanded its presence across more oil-producing nations and has increased its own production of petroleum, relief from high gas prices will never come so long as oil is the only fuel available because it is a global commodity. If we rely upon our own domestic production of crude oil to try to produce enough, well die trying. We cant do it, states John Hofmeister, the former president of Shell Oil. It is clear that Americas dependence on oil is not sustainable, but the film shows that the alternatives to wean the nation off of its fossil fuel addiction are already here. Tickell does a masterful job of taking the viewer through a few of the renewable options currently available: methanol, electric, natural gas, biodiesel, and of course ethanol. The gas station of the future, as the film points out, is one that offers consumers a variety of fuel options for them to choose from. The main obstacle to making this future a reality is the intransigence of the oil companies from voluntarily making changes to the fueling infrastructure infrastructure that they overwhelmingly control. I offered some insight on the pressure Big Oil employs onto retailers through existing franchise agreements, telling the makers of the film that the reality is, once that franchise agreement is signed, the major petroleum company controls all decisions based on fuels, and the lack of ability for the individual business owner to make those decisions continues to block out alternative fuels. While obstacles to Big Oils monopoly remain, the documentary makes one thing clear: Americans want choice at the pump. Alternatives to oil are not only less expensive, but are cleaner and help increase our nations security. In order for the United States to succeed in the 21st century, it must transition away from a fuel economy stuck in the 20th. As John Hofmeister states, Theres been a monopoly on the fuel system of cars built and sold in this country. Its time to break that monopoly. The Renewable Fuels Association has been the leader in working to break this monopoly with ethanol by helping petroleum marketers and individual station owners convert existing equipment, or install new equipment, in order to offer fuels like E15, mid-level blends and E85. The grip of the major petroleum companies is strong and RFA has documented it twice in recent times, first with Protecting the Monopoly: How Big Oil Covertly Blocks the Sale of Renewable Fuels, followed by Evidence of E85 Price Gouging?. This is a fight, but one worth fighting. Pump is already playing in select cities and comes to Washington, D.C. today, October 10. Check out the trailer at and find it in a theater near you!