Wrapped inside his “Drill, Baby, drill” theme, Mark Mathis suggests a more urgent message: “It’s too late, Baby.”
Mr. Mathis, a former TV newsman in New Mexico, was in Billings last week to promote his new documentary film “SpOILed.” His stalwart defense of U.S. oil companies and his pro-drilling evangelism sparked the Billings Chamber of Commerce to invite members to a question-and-answer session following a showing at the Wynnsong 10 movie theater.
Mr. Mathis also answered questions after other showings over the weekend, and he appeared at a free showing offered Friday night for students and faculty at Montana State University Billings.
There he drew a crowd of fewer than 15 people, perhaps two or three of them young enough to be of traditional college student age.
“I’m sorry we don’t have more people under 25 here,” Mr. Mathis said. If the younger generation will save America from its addiction to oil, there was a clear shortage of saviors on Friday night.
OK, it’s not an addiction, at least according to Mr. Mathis. Instead, we have been spoiled, as his title suggests, by an abundance of cheap and accessible oil. Now it is running out, and no easy replacements are in sight.
“It’s going to be a test for mankind like we’ve never seen before,” Mr. Mathis says in his film.
By some measures, the world may have passed “peak oil” as long ago as 2005. Peak oil is the point at which oil production reaches its maximum and inevitably begins to decline.
Already, Mr. Mathis’ film argues, 75 percent of the world’s oil is produced in just 800 fields, and half of that comes from the top 50 fields. The other 25 percent comes from 40,000 fields. By the year 2020, we could be looking at a 33 million barrel gap between supply and demand for oil, the film said.
While big oil companies are often blamed for rising gasoline prices, Mr. Mathis pointed out, about 93 percent of the world’s oil is controlled by foreign governments, such as Russia, the Middle Eastern countries and Venezuela. In that market, big oil is small potatoes.
The United States, as President Obama likes to point out, uses more than 20 percent of the world’s oil but has only about 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. America can’t produce enough oil to have a large impact on world markets, he argues.
While Mr. Mathis was critical of the president’s energy policies for restricting drilling offshore and on federal land, he was even less kind to some of his opponents, such as presidential candidate and former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, who argues that drilling more in the United States could reduce gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon.
“I’d like to have some of what he’s smoking,” Mr. Mathis said at the MSU Billings showing. That price, in fixed dollars, would be the cheapest gasoline in U.S. history, he said.
But Mr. Mathis was an unapologetic fan of oil. The first 20 minutes or so of his film is devoted to the enormous impact of oil on the world’s economic development. Oil not only fuels our cars, it is used in an enormous array of products, from plastics to tires.
Oil not only made us mobile – one of his sources called the internal combustion engine “the freedom machine” – but it also helped us win World War II. The energy contained in just one barrel of oil replaces 21,000 hours of manual labor, his film says.
Oil has made us wealthy, happy and secure, the film argues. But we are running out of it, a point his film emphasizes with recurring images of him walking alone down a road with an empty gas can. New technology may extend the life of existing oil fields by allowing us to pump previously inaccessible oil, but that doesn’t change the long-term picture.
Even short-term, Mr. Mathis argues, we could be in trouble. China already is buying up captive supplies of oil around the globe to protect itself against the day when oil runs short. A disaster or two – such as another war in the Middle East or another major oil spill like British Petroleum’s giant spill in the Gulf of Mexico – could be enough to lead to international oil shortages, he argues.
“It won’t take a big event to push us over the edge,” the film says.
All of that doesn’t even take into account the possible connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change. Mr. Mathis was skeptical about human-cause global warming, in part, he said, because he was skeptical of the science.
But also, he pointed out, China and other countries with rapidly modernizing economies are likely to offset any reductions we make in carbon emissions. China alone is building a coal-fired power plant every week, he said.
Unfortunately, he didn’t hold out much immediate hope for alternatives to oil. Cars that run on compressed natural gas are promising but won’t solve the problem, he said.
Electric cars are expensive and require large batteries that are made of increasingly rare metals. Solar and wind power won’t get the job done. Ethanol is wasteful and inefficient. Biofuels made from algae are promising but years away from commercial use. Hydrogen fuel technology is 30 years away – and always will be, he said.
The solution? Keep the oil pumping. We can’t drill our way out of this mess, but ramping up domestic oil production could buy enough time to develop alternatives before crisis strikes. And Mr. Mathis said he had confidence in the ability of American technology to find an answer in time to avoid a disaster.
A former reporter himself, Mr. Mathis blamed the celebrity-driven media in part for not getting out the facts. Politicians are too focused on the next election, and environmentalists spread guilt and fear.
“I’m just a guy whose tethered to reality, and we’re not facing it,” he said.