Back in July, I reviewed a documentary film called Fields of Fuel directed by Josh Tickell. That film recently returned to Seattle after being reedited and renamed, Fuel.

I actually think this new iteration is worth seeing with the caveat that you take the conspiracy theories and convoluted defenses of food-based biodiesel with a grain of salt.

The billing at Seattle’s Varsity Theater website was: “Fuel exposes shocking connections between the auto industry, the oil industry, and the government, while exploring alternative energies such as solar, wind, electricity, and non-food-based biofuels. Director Josh Tickell and his Veggie Van take us on the road to discover the pros and cons of biofuels.” Note the emphasis on “non-food based biofuels.” My concern is that the emphasis on food may have been special for Seattle and may disappear from the billing in other cities.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) was there to answer questions after the film and was very careful to always use the term “non-food based” in front of the word biofuel. It is entirely possibly that he had been warned that an obscure blogger might be in the audience trying to take notes in the dark. He even muttered at one point “… we have to get away from corn ethanol.” Inslee also plugged his book, Apollo’s Fire, which was a decent read except for the parts where he lambasted politicians who opposed biofuel mandates and subsidies.

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Reviewing a movie is no fun:

  • I have not figured out how to take notes in the dark.
  • When I do try to take notes I miss what’s going on in the movie.
  • Exposed to the light of day, the notes I took look like the scratching of a crack-crazed chicken.

I was skeptical that much had changed. The theme of the original movie was a road trip in a biodiesel-powered Winnebago to document other people driving biodiesel cars and trucks all across America. It seemed unlikely to me that Tickell would have enough spare footage laying around to fill in for all of the food-based biodiesel promotion he would have to cut. Apparently, he had a lot laying around because he did manage to pare it down quite a bit. He only tastes biodiesel one time, and that oil was made from algae — although it wasn’t clear if it was just algae oil or actual biodiesel.

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The film tries to create a new bandwagon to jump on, now that crop-based biofuels are in the public opinion crapper, and that bandwagon is called algae. The problem, as with cellulosic, is that there is no algae-based biodiesel commercially available at affordable prices and may well be perpetually just “five-years away” for the next 30 years. About 95 percent of biodiesel in America is grown on arable cropland, and about 4.99 percent comes from recycled grease. Essentially the film insinuates that it’s OK to burn food-based biodiesel (but not, strangely enough, corn based ethanol) until something better comes along.

The film still has a German race car driver literally hugging rapeseed in a field. And it also has a clip of Tickell on a boat in front of a sign that says “Powered by Soy Biodiesel,” and a close-up of Neil Young and Willie Nelson putting food-based biodiesel in Willie’s giant recreational vehicle (while trying to suppress what appears to be a case of the giggles).  Willie resigned as Director of Earth Biodiesels back in 2006 after the company lost $63 million. However he still owns the BioWillie brand name and, according to his website, plans to reopen Willie’s Place in 2008. He better hurry, ’cause there are less than 30 days left.

As with a Star Trek episode where you have to suspend reality to enjoy a show where all lifeforms in the galaxy speak English and are descended from Australopithecus afarensis, you must also suspend it for parts of this documentary. Instead of a warp drive powered by dilithium crystals, we have algae based biodiesel. Did you know that prohibition was actually a giant conspiracy promoted by big oil to crush corn ethanol? Rudolph Diesel, who wanted people to burn vegetable oil in his engines, was found dead, floating in the ocean … dun, dun, dunnn.

Tickell continues to downplay biofuels’ role in food pricing, biodiversity loss, and carbon-sink destruction, as this article in the Huffington Post titled, “Where’s My Orangutan? Why Biofuels Don’t Kill Apes” attests. You might think he has changed his mind. However, at one part in the film he stands in front of giant letters spelling out “Food vs Fuel” and tells the audience that oil is what made food prices to go up, not biofuels. Which must be true because he has a clip of Vinod Khosla saying the exact same thing! The average prices per year since 2005 (the year the Renewable Fuels Standard was instituted) of a bushel of corn and a gallon of retail gasoline suggests a different story:

So, if your family depends on ground maize as a major source of sustenance (as hundreds of millions do) the cost of your main staple since 2005 has gone up 135 percent while the average cost of gas for us poor Americans has gone up 50 percent.

He goes on to blame American ag policy for allowing American farmers to sell heavily subsidized farm products to third world countries instead of making them grow their own food (which is another way of saying they should be paying more for their food anyway). Our ag policy certainly has problems, as witnessed by the present biofuel debacle among other issues, but raising the price of food for the poor by turning it into fuel is not the way to fix past transgressions. And doesn’t this argument undercut the previous one that biofuels have not significantly impacted food prices? Our farmers happily take every subsidy offered and every customer willing to buy, as any sane person would.

He shows us a clip of timber being taken out of a forest instead of a satellite photo showing the thousands of square miles lost to soybeans. More is presently lost to logging and pasture than soybeans for sure, but that’s because only a tiny fraction of a percent of our fuel is presently made from biodiesel. Scale that up and watch what would happen. We all know the strawman by now; are biofuels really solely responsible for destabilizing food prices? No, Mr. Biodiesel enthusiast, they represent just one of the factors contributing to it, as every article I have ever seen clearly points out, except for those by biofuel enthusiasts dusting off the aforementioned strawman.

He goes on to blame two articles in Science (which used science to prove what common sense would suggest: biofuel crops grown and stuffed into our SUVs displace food crops and therefore carbon sinks in other parts of the world) for the media backlash against biofuels.

He asks “How can biodiesel possibly be worse than oil?” Here you go. Look at figure 3, “Comparison of aggregated environmental impacts.” It lists just about every biofuel under production (and then some) and does not even include the latest findings on crop displacement and nitrous oxide releases.

The guy calling for school boards all across America to demand that biodiesel be burned in school buses (instead of having them retrofitted with modern air pollution devices) showed up twice.

Toward the end, Tickell summed up with a very simple graphic how he thinks we should displace fossil-fuel use. It was a barrel of oil sliced into sections. According to my notes it went something like this: renewable biofuels, biomass, wind, solar, frosting — no wait, that must be plug-ins, efficiency, and getting out of our cars. Compare that to the graphs you sometimes see here on Gristmill. Tickell seems not to even realize that the second leading cause of global warming is land-use change. Indonesia and Brazil are right behind the United States and China in greenhouse-gas release thanks to deforestation, which didn’t make the list, or at least, I could not find that word in my notes.

After the movie one of the promoters gave a little pep talk to the crowd before Representative Inslee appeared. She admonished us to fact check and to not blindly believe what we read in newspapers. Big oil is spreading misinformation about biodiesel, don’t you know. Odd that biodiesel enthusiasts were not asking us to fact check the media all those years when it was telling us that biodiesel smelled like popcorn and was carbon neutral. It would be grown locally and end wars fought over resources. It would not affect food prices, limit biodiversity, encroach on conservation reserve land, blah, blah, blah.

During Inslee’s chat he mentioned three generations of biofuels: first generation (food-based), cellulosic, and finally algae. I must have blinked when cellulosic came and went and I still don’t see any algae. Why anyone would want to be a politician in today’s complex world is beyond me. I was mildly tempted to raise my hand and ask him how he planned to implement Washington State’s biofuel mandates without using food-based biofuels but thought better of it.

Believe it or not, having said all that, I still recommend seeing this film. I actually enjoyed it and who knows what it will look like six months from now. I think Tickell has great skill as a film director (and editor). I hope this film launches his career. If I had the money I’d hire him for a project or two. There are bigger fish to fry. He needs to turn this talent loose on coal and deforestation.