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Understanding oil

October 22, 2010

Three PLU MediaLab students went from Canada to the Gulf to explore the issue of oil for their documentary “Oil Literacy.”

Understanding oil

By Chris Albert

This past summer, students from PLU’s MediaLab embarked on a journey to learn, ask and explore oil and energy consumption in the United States.

“It’s not about the either or debate,” said Lorna Rodriguez, a senior communication major who worked on the film, along with Kari Plog and Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath. “It mainly focuses on oil and where oil comes from.”

“There’s not one right answer,” Plog said, about the issues of energy consumption, dependence and waste.

But what the three have developed, along with students from the University of Calgary, is a documentary that asks those questions of energy and gives voice to what a variety of people have to say about it, in the film “Oil Literacy.”

The film’s premiere is at 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 30 in the Microsoft Theater at the Seattle Central Public Library. After the screening a panel discussion will take place, followed by a reception. The event is free.

“First and foremost I hope people become more educated about the topic,” Rodriguez said. “And I hope it inspires people to make a difference.”

While filming, they interviewed nearly 70 people from industry leaders, energy experts and political powers to the everyday person on the street. They took 65 hours of film and nearly 2,000 photos that have all been brought down to 35-40 minutes for the final film.

When the project begins as a concept it’s hard to envision getting to the premiere, there’s so much work to do, Plog said.

“It becomes like your baby because it’s been my life for a year,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal that it’s premiering.”

Ultimately, the students hope the audience takes away one concept from the film: There’s not one right answer or solution and even small steps can help dispel energy waste.

“It really rests with the consumer,” Plog said. “So the people who will be watching our film are the people who can make a difference.”

For the aspiring PLU producers of the film, learning was a big part of creating the documentary. They had to educate themselves and learn facts they never really knew before.

Their quest to find out where oil comes from led to a startling realization for the college students. Nearly two-thirds of the United State’s energy resources come from Canada.

“Canada is the number one energy exporter to us,” Plog said.

And the issues that surround energy consumption cover the economic, environmental, social and political spectrum. There are a lot of politics involved when a country, the U.S., which makes up two-percent of the world’s population consumes more energy than any other country by a large margin, she said.

“Politics plays a huge role in it,” Plog said.

This summer, their quest for facts and knowledge led them to Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.

“It’s a small town, but it’s a boom town,” Plog said.

It’s a town that has an economy based on oil production. People come and go seasonally, depending on that production.

During their 33-day schedule they went from SeaTac Airport to Salt Lake City Edmonton, Canada to Calgary to Fort McMurray and then to Houston. From Houston, they drove to the Gulf Coast where they saw the impact of the largest oil spill in U.S. history- the Deep Horizon oil spill or the BP oil spill – not only on the environment, but industry and the people it affects.

The Gulf coast was a few months into the largest ecological disaster in history when the students visited the region.  In April, an explosion on an offshore drilling rig killed 11 people, also causing a deep-sea surge of oil into the Gulf. According to AP,  estimates of how much oil leaked into the Gulf per day ranged from 2.7 million to 6.8 million gallons, with massive leaks being capped by mid-July and the spill diminishing.

Back in Houston they flew to Chicago, then drove to Detroit, Washington D.C., New York City, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo and finally home.

The filmmakers didn’t know what to expect from whom they talked to.

One person that stood out to the students was the former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, John Hofmeister. As someone directly connected to big oil,  the expectation might be he was all for oil as the only solution, but that wasn’t the case. As an executive in both energy consumption and energy industries, he looks at the issues pragmatically.

Hofmeister recently started a non-profit organization called Citizens for Affordable Energy and is working to inform the American public about energy issues, and advocate for politicians to mobilize and implement a solution to the energy crisis.

It was encouraging to the students that a person who regularly speaks on national news channels about energy issues would meet and talk with them candidly.

“I was so excited to to talk to him because right before he talked to us he was live with CNN and right after talking to us he left for a live interview with Fox Business News,” Plog said.

While clean up efforts in the Deep Horizon spill is underway, there has been an impact felt that is not only environmental, but also very much connected to the livelihood of the people who live there. The economic loss is projected to be $11.5 billion, according to reports. The coast of a once vibrant ocean was covered with a reflective film, choking the life from it day-by-day. Yet, the people still broke through the tragedy, shining even in the face of devastation, Plog said.

“We definitely had a taste of Southern hospitality,” she said.

Residents were just really nice and inviting, whether it was opening their homes or sharing a meal, even while the region has been hit by uncertainty.

Many of the people they talked to in the Gulf region were hesitant to talk on camera. Many feared for how they would make a living in a region with a once bustling fishing industry, Plog said. Many people are now dependent on working for BP, in the effort to clean up the oil soaked shoreline and waterways. Offshore drilling is also a booming industry in the region and a halt on drilling could mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

Where ever they went the opinions about and how people responded where different. There was rudeness, frankness, empathy, passion and countless other emotions which came through, as well as misconceptions and misinformation, like most of our energy is provided to us by the Middle East, and not Canada.

“What the most powerful for me was seeing all the different cultures within our own country,” Rodriguez said. “Seeing where people are from and how that shapes their views on the issues was very powerful to me.”

Through this experience, the students’ own views begun to take shape. For example, they don’t buy and use plastic water bottles now.

“It’s amazing how much oil is used in the production of plastic water bottles,” Plog said. “It just takes something small to make a big difference.”

According to National Geographic, 29 billion water bottles are manufactured for use by Americans every year and Americans buy more bottled water than any other nation in the world. To make these bottles manufacturers use 17 million barrels of crude oil.  And only one out of six bottles make it into a recycling bin. One recycled plastic bottle can save enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for six hours.

But it’s not just about good sustainable practices; it’s also about education.

“Don’t consume your information from just one source,” Rodriguez said. “Challenge yourself to listen.”