Fuel Director Josh Tickell Talks President-Elect Obama, The Car Bailout and Those Low Gas Prices

I was recently sent a Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary entitled Fuel, a film about the global and local repercussions of the world's addiction to oil. Filmmaker Josh Tickell has put together an informative and interesting movie; it's well balanced and courageous. You can check out the official website at your leisure, and hopefully enjoy my interview with alternative energy expert Josh Tickell in the meantime.

Laremy Legel: Your documentary mentions wind power as a tremendous alternative to oil.

Josh Tickell: Yeah, theoretically 100 percent of the electricity in the U.S. could be generated through wind.

LL: Are you in favor of the automaker bailout? Or do you think they should have been doing something different all along in terms of electric cars and more efficient gas mileage?

JT: I am absolutely not in favor of bailing out the auto industry. I feel that subsidizing a dead industry that's not giving consumers what they want, that has purposefully shifted technologies away from green and away from efficiency -- that's subsidizing the opposite of what we should be subsidizing.

And it's not a jobs issue. [People say] the issue with Detroit is there would be a lot of jobs lost. But nobody is cutting more employees than the auto industry. They cut, on average, 30,000 jobs per year. So why would we subsidize an industry that continues to cut jobs? It doesn't make sense. What makes sense is to create new development, new industry. To take those factories and reuse them. All of the manufacturing capacity exists in Detroit today to make 50 to 100 mile per gallon cars. But these automakers refuse to provide them to the American public. The same auto manufacturers are in fact producing 50 to 100 mile per gallon cars and shipping them to Europe or Japan.

LL: So you'd be in favor of subsidizing green companies with the money instead?

JT: Exactly. Use the money to create a new generation of auto manufacturers that will provide consumers with what they want. It's not rocket science. The money needs to be put to work with America's best interests at heart.

LL: Do you worry that if we get off Middle Eastern oil it will hurt human rights issues in the region?

JT: I think we have to be specific. We have to separate issues of democracy from petrodollars. There's no link between more money and civil rights. So any illusion that people have, that if we stop funneling trillions of dollars into hostile territories, that civil rights will take a turn for the worse hasn't studied Middle East policy.

The thing that hurts the democratic process the most is the corruption that comes with the way we set up the money system in those countries now. There's nothing more detrimental to human rights than the petrodollar economy that we've engaged these countries in.

Barack ObamaLL: Do you think President-elect Obama is going to make huge changes as far as alternative energies go?

JT: I think he has the greatest opportunity for change that we've seen since John F. Kennedy was president. The difficulty for [President-elect] Obama, and the challenge for him and his administration, will be dealing with the corporate infrastructure that we have. And at the same time creating a new green economy. The hardest thing the Obama administration has to do is divorce the U.S. Economy from petrodollars and enjoin the U.S. economy to green dollars.

It's at the root of the economic crisis, oil. If you've got an option, and this administration has an option, short term sacrifice for long term gain. Or long term sacrifice for short term gain. The short term sacrifice is moving towards green energy. The gains are huge. The other way around will placate the auto and oil industries ... but the inevitable will be a crash of the economy the likes of which we haven't seen since the Great Depression.

LL: One odd thing I've noticed lately is how much fuel prices have come down. What do you make of that? Are the oil companies afraid we're about to start making changes?

JT: The very simple, non-conspiratorial answer [is that] the oil companies have banked $100 billion dollars in profit during the last five quarters. It's easy to buy down oil prices with that kind of money in the bank. It's hard to do it long term. So as we transition you'll notice some very large checks getting written to incumbent industries. There's an air of security that's been created. Even though we're in a tremendous economic crisis certain corporations and individuals are making a lot of money from the government. And there's no real outrage or upset. Because we've been lulled into a false sense of security by low oil taxes. Exit the Bush administration, and I think we're going to see a different scenario.

LL: In your documentary you mention investing in wind, solar and algae companies as a way to help. Can you expand on that?

JT: The wind companies as a whole are very stable right now. Wind power is the cheapest form of electricity that can be put on the grid. Much cheaper than coal, nuclear, even cheaper than natural gas. So they have a distinct and long term advantage. Investment in wind is a really solid investment right now.

LL: You also recommend eating lower on the food chain. What does the entail exactly?

JT: The reference comes from the fact the average plate of food in America contains more petroleum, in terms of the calories expended to get the food to your table, then is actually in the food. A 2,000 calorie meal costs like 3,000 calories to get to you. That's just the energy expended. If you look how the food is grown, it's grown on soil that is largely petroleum fertilized. It's been sprayed with petroleum pesticides. So the nutrition from the food is coming from nitrates and phosphates that are petroleum based. The stabilization of the crop is through fertilizers that are petroleum, that have been packaged in petroleum.

So it's really about eating local and taking food back to its roots. Taking food back to being produced on a level where very little petroleum is used. It's easier with foods that are lower on the food chain. With fruits, vegetables and grain. I'm not saying everyone has to become a granola crunching hippie, but food is by far the greatest expenditure of water and energy in our society.

LL: The vertical farms showcased in your documentary ... could those be built today?

JT: Absolutely. We're seeing that technology already being implemented in China. We're seeing it looked at in Dubai. It's being done on different scales around the world. The concept of the vertical farm is taking the technology we have today and packaging it differently. We haven't seen a true skyscraper vertical farm yet, but Chicago and several other cities are in a race to produce the first one.

LL: Why has Europe done such a better job than the U.S. on green energy?

JT: I think one factor is how Europeans are educated. They are educated to much higher standards of math and science. So when we talk about carbon dioxide emissions and we talk about the earth changing we in the U.S. are preaching to the choir. There's about 50 percent or 60 percent that believes global warming is an issue. The rest don't; they see it as a liberal agenda. In Europe the issue of climate change is a non-politicized question. It's accepted by all ranks of government and all walks of life.

But here's the irony: Whether you believe in global warming or you don't, the ironic result is that the economies that have invested their GDPs into green energy technologies and laws have realized returns in the range of 40 percent to 400 percent. Short term returns, in less than five years. So why, just from an economic perspective, wouldn't the U.S. follow suit? The answer is we've gotten mired in a very politicized conversation. We could be seeing Detroit as the most profitable city in America. Instead of seeing that we're all wondering whether to bail out our auto companies. I think we need to shift our conversation and bolster our knowledge of science. Whether from the perspective of dealing with the climate change situation or pure profit it only makes sense to use green technologies. And we're roughly 10 to 20 years behind the European Union in implementing these changes. And the economy shows it. We're suffering because we're not doing it.

LL: I noticed that a lot of the songs in the film come from your fiancee. Want to give her a quick plug? I thought her stuff was great.

JT: Her name is Rebecca Harrell. We're getting married August 2.

LL: What's the future for Fuel?

JT: We're releasing in New York on February 6 and L.A. on February 13 and then out across the country. Being on the short list for the Academy Awards is taking up a tremendous amount of our time! It's surprising that a little green film like this is being recognized by such a prestigious film institution like the Academy. We're honored by it. When all is said and done we have a fighting chance!