PARK CITY, Utah (AFP) — Activist Josh Tickell has been using and promoting bio-diesel for about 10 years as an alternative to fossil fuels, helping America lessen its dependence on foreign oil.
In his documentary film "Fields of Fuel," premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week, he outlines the historical origins of and the political constructs that support petroleum use.
As well, he presents the benefits of bio-diesel, how it can be grown locally anywhere in the world to shift multi-national energy companies' clout to local communities, mustering applause from audiences here.
But not everyone is buying into his message.
Environmentalists continue to push for a reduction in energy consumption as the best way to stem global warming and pollution -- a point he concedes.
"The reality that we find ourselves in is that political power is concentrated, economic power is concentrated due to the massing of control over energy resources (by OPEC)," Tickell said in an interview with AFP.
In his film, Tickell criticizes John Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Company, for his strategy to halt ethanol use in Henry Ford's first Model T, and he fuels a longstanding conspiracy behind the death of Rudolf Diesel at the height of his engine's popularization.
Diesel disappeared from a ship crossing the English Channel in 1913.
Tickell goes to Carl's Corner Texas truck stop, a new Brooklyn biodiesel plant serving three states, and an Arizona algae-based fuel farm to show real examples of a decentralized, sustainable energy infrastructure.
Bio-diesel, he says, can be pumped into most diesel engines without requiring mechanical modifications, biodegrades in water in about a month, and creates less greenhouse gases than burning gasoline.
He even tastes it in the film.
"The biggest challenge (to using bio-diesel) is a lack of political power," he told AFP. "The system is set up to maintain fossil fuel ... The oil industry may want to change, and the technology is out there, but the obstacle is getting a (consumer) perspective shift."
"The only way that can be done is through government mandated laws that promote green energy," he added, warning of "severe repercussions" if nothing changes.
But critics point to the limited amount of arable land in the world, and say using farmland to grow fuel crops on a massive scale will lead to a spike in food prices, and food shortages.
A Canadian bank has already blamed US efforts to add more ethanol to its gas tanks for driving up food prices while delivering moot energy benefits.
Food inflation would top five percent in 2008 and the following year would approach seven percent, its highest level in more than 25 years, Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, predicted in October.
"This diversion of an ever-increasing share of the American corn crop from human consumption and livestock feed to energy production is putting steady and unrelenting pressure on food prices," said Rubin.
Ethanol is used as an additive to gasoline, comprising as much as 20 percent of the fuel mixture in most automobiles. Ninety-five percent of the ethanol produced in the United States is distilled from corn.
The US administration has set a target to raise ethanol production from one billion gallons a year in 2000 to 35 billion gallons a year by 2017.
But even if the United States achieved President George W. Bush's 2017 target, that would only reduce gasoline consumption by an estimated 6.5 percent, Rubin said.
Bio-diesel, Tickell countered, does not have to rely on the same inputs as ethanol. The production process yields more fuel per input than ethanol, and bio-diesel inputs such as algae and switch grass would not have to displace food crops, he said.
"And you quickly get used to the (fried food) smell coming out of your tailpipe," he added.
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