Crude Impact

Chris Vernon | December 16, 2006

The screening of Crude Impact at the ASPO-USA conference in Boston (Oct06) almost didn’t happen with Director James Wood only flying into Boston that afternoon with the film. In introducing the film Wood was humble, admitting some nerves screening the film to what he considered a home crowd.

Crude Impact isn’t just a film about peak oil, it’s far broader. In fact peak oil isn’t even specifically mentioned until two-thirds through. This is to the film’s credit allowing the relationship between oil and humanity to be developed before thinking about the future.

The cinematography, iconic images, symbolism, soundtrack and the overall production quality are absolutely top notch. This professional look and feel adds credibility to the message and I believe makes the film all the more watchable for someone to whom this subject matter is new. On the subject matter, the film is well structured covering importance of oil in human development, foreign policy impacts, human impact, uses of oil, environmental impacts, the role of the media, before moving on the peak oil itself and the impacts of peak oil for the future.

I was particularly impressed with the early linking of fossil fuels with population expansion, equating a species’ evolutionary successes with its ability to extract energy from the environment. This is one of the first points the film makes, establishing the historic importance of fossil fuels and oil in particular. Food is highlighted as a critical use of oil, repeating the 10:1 energy ratio often quoted and that fossil fuels allow more energy to be used in the production of food than the food itself contains adding that for any other organism this spells extinction.

The film does not just focus on the energy and material side of things. The human and sociological impacts of oil are also considered. Rees questions the notion of material growth pointing out how we have far exceeded what is actually needed to be happy. Two examples of the negative impact of the oil industry are covered in detail, Texaco’s activities in Ecuador and Shell’s in the Niger Delta. In Ecuador Texaco took advantage of an inexperienced government and lack of regulation to exploit reserves in the Amazon rain forest employing methods disallowed in other provinces. One statistic presented is that during Texaco’s time in the rain forest (1964-92) they dumped 18 billion gallons of waste water containing 2% crude oil into the environment, the equivalent of 30 times the oil spilt during the Exxon Valdez disaster.

In the Niger Delta the environmental destruction, particularly in Ogoniland is presented through story of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s human rights and environmental activism and subsequent execution in a case backed by Shell. The point here I believe was to stress the direct suffering both human and environmental associated with the production and ultimately consumption of oil.

Crude Impact is critical of mainstream media suggesting that if the true impacts of our current oil polices were widely known they wouldn’t enjoy public support. Modern news coverage is criticised as “infotainment”, regarded as profit centre rather then the public service it should be, telling us what is really happening in the world.

Climate change is covered with mankind’s exploitation of fossil fuels described as the most significant thing humans have ever done, triggering perhaps the 6th great extinction event.

The subject of peak oil is covered very convincingly. Hubbert’s story is presented with added credibility from Deffeyes’ who worked with Hubbert at Shell. Of note are the fantastic graphical animations explaining the concept of peak oil, illustrating how production must follow discovery and how discovery has clearly peaked decades ago.

OPEC’s reserve growth is questioned, the USGS estimates of remaining resources are clamed by Al-Husseini to be exaggerated and Deffeyes even mentions an email he received from the head of the USGS explaining how large estimates were needed to encourage people to search for more oil!

The viewer is left with no doubt we are moving from a time of cheap abundant oil to one of expensive scarce oil. The impacts of peak are presented as resource wars, civil wars within oil exporting countries and a weakened economy subsequently less able to respond to new challenges. As oil becomes more valuable increased human rights and environmental damage is likely. The fundamental problem we face is described as growth, a problem that can’t be solved even if a new energy source is identified. Another limit will present itself, be it water, soil, phosphates etc. Population was mentioned at the start and was returned to at the end. Kavita Ramdas highlights the importance of women with respect to population stating that for every additional three years of education a woman receives reduces the number of children she has by one.

Crude Impact is a terrific film. I have no hesitation in saying it is the best documentary I have seen on the subject and I would feel very happy about recommending it to anyone. Key I think is its accessibility to someone with no prior exposure to the story of oil.