“It can be difficult to distinguish between bullshit and wisdom when oil men are talking. That’s because, as Houston We Have a Problem makes clear, they’re full of both,” writes reviewer Cindy Widner.
I couldn’t have encapsulated better myself the essence of Houston We Have a Problem: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Cheap Energy. As Widner puts it:
If the film boasts a high concentration of oil company executives and wildcatters, it’s mostly the better for it. Once we get past their initial, grating posturing, we learn something of their deep knowledge of and passion for their business, as well as more about the high risk tolerance required of the profession. Also on display is a dispassionate – some would say cynical – understanding of the political and social realms they operate in. “We don’t really care where we get oil,” says Huddleston & Co. Chairman B.P. Huddleston. “We just want oil, period.”
Widner also notes that the film really shines when it puts eccentric characters on screen, especially Joanne King Herring, the Houston socialite responsible for getting the US government to arm Mujahideen resistance fighters against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — and played by Julia Roberts in the film dramatization Charlie Wilson’s War.
If you care about peak oil, it’s refreshing is to see that all the oil men know that their product is running out. That’s their wisdom.
“We know as good as anybody that oil is not going to be around forever. It’s just not. We need wildcatters to come out today, but we need the wildcatters in biofuels, in renewable energies, in all the various sources of energy available,” says one wildcatter.
Too cheery about solutions
But the film’s final segment on “The New Wildcatters” is to quick to deliver yet another cheery travelogue across the landscape of clean energy ideas from geothermal to algae without talking much about the need for radical conservation or powering down industrial society’s unsustainable use of energy.
It’s not only the oil men who deliver a mixture of wisdom and its opposite. A self-described “tree-hugging liberal” like director Nicole Torre is not immune to hype about clean energy or to confusion about who’s really to blame for the industrial economy’s energy problems.
And as the film listens to oil men with a generous dose of respect for both their knowledge and their bravado, it winds up delivering a message — the real people responsible for America’s oil addiction are not oil men but consumers — that’s both a needed tonic and a confusing shift of blame.
True, the industry is only meeting the public’s voracious demand for gasoline, natural gas and petroleum-derived products from plastics to pharmaceuticals. And the famously wasteful American public can certainly find ways to use less oil every day.
For their part, risk-taking wildcatters deserve credit for a heroic job of exploring ever further afield, in deep water or under polar ice, to find the crude that America’s drivers, food-eaters and stuff-users demand every day. Demonizing the oil industry is in many ways both unfair and unhelpful. “When you say ‘Bad Ol’ Oil,’ you’re talking about your next-door neighbor,” says oilman BP Huddleston.
So, can’t we all just get along? Can’t the oil industry be re-jiggered to become a clean energy industry?
Clean energy is for pussies
Given that oil companies’ work on clean energy so far has gone little beyond cheery ad campaigns and online greenwashing, converting Exxon or Chesapeake Energy into solar or wind behemoths anytime soon seems unlikely. Meantime, while there’s still any hope of using their expensive existing investments in equipment to find and produce more fossil fuels, oil and gas companies are more likely to tear up the Athabasca tar sands or to hydrofrack the Marcellus Shale than to spend money on installing solar panels or wind turbines. Can you blame them?
Besides which, wimpy do-gooder renewables run counter to the machismo culture of resource extraction in the first place.
Are a bunch of guys from Houston who think it’s cool to dig it up, tear it up and burn it up really going to take to putting in a bunch of small-scale hydropower and sitting Zen-style by the creek, listening to the water trickle by? Surely, any barrel-chested he-man would much rather speed out to a Shell platform in the Ogoni Delta and watch the gas flares shoot high up into the sky while listening to the security guys, drunk on cheap rum, shoot off AK-47s just for kicks.
And with millions to throw at Washington lobbyists to keep oil and gas subsidies flowing, to block clean energy and conservation and to spread lies about climate science, the oil industry is not your next-door neighbor. Unless you live next to the Koch brothers and spend a thousand dollars a day buying members of Congress to keep America addicted to a resource that you know damned well is about to get a lot more expensive.
–Erik Curren, Transition Voice