General view of an oil refinery

A new documentary called Pump seeking to promote alternative fuels in the US takes aim at the existing downstream oil products complex and suggests change is afoot. The movie is due out in September and today Submarine Deluxe, in association with Fuel Freedom Foundation and iDeal Film Partners released the trailer that can be viewed below this post.

Utilizing natural gas as a transportation fuel is a large component of Fuel Freedom’s agenda. The recent surge in US natural gas production and the commodity’s current price discount to oil and oil products like gasoline and diesel has made natural gas vehicles a popular concept in recent years. Indeed, NGVs are making headway as fueling infrastructure expands and companies that operate fleet vehicles begin making the switch to natural gas.

One of the voice overs in the Pump trailer says, “The oil companies invented the pump, they control it, there is no competition.” The statement appears to suggest something nefarious is going on and it will be interesting to see the evidence presented in the film to support the allegation that oil companies are keeping alternative fuels out of the market place.

“There’s Been a Monopoly on the Fuel System in this Country” – John Hofmeister, former President of Shell Oil US

It’s a complicated issue with oil companies and refiners on one side saying alternative fuels like E85 ethanol can corrode engine seals on non-flex fuel vehicles and several manufacturers stating their warranties do not cover high-alcohol-content fuels. But the documentary argues that reconfiguring engines to run on alternative fuels is a simple and inexpensive process. The debate continues.

The chicken vs. egg dilemma is often invoked as part of this debate. If there were a larger market for alternative fuels, companies and governments could justify making major infrastructure investments, but that larger market is being throttled back due to a lack of fueling infrastructure, and so on.

This issue is addressed by another voice over in the trailer saying, “What’s going to break the monopoly at the pump is entrepreneurs who build alternative distribution,” suggesting a grassroots business approach could help change the system.

Clearly oil companies and refiners have vested interests in selling as much of their product as possible and maintaining market share just like any industry. Whether these incumbents defend their position within the confines of existing market structure, commodity price dynamics and shrewd business practices, or whether they engage in illegal, deceitful behavior is where the discussion gets ugly and arguably more interesting. Although conspiracy theories are maddening because the airtight proof needed to validate their claims is reportedly suppressed, thus relegating the conspiracy to a purgatorial state that lies between fact and fantasy.

Hopefully Pump adds credible, fact-based arguments to the debate and offers realistic solutions to the challenge of moving 319,000,000 Americans and their goods in the cleanest, cheapest and most reliable fashion.