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Professors Take Part in Oil Documentary

Professors Take Part in Oil Documentary

In early 2006, as gas prices spiked to more than $4 a gallon in California, Scott D. Roberts read an intriguing editorial in the Modesto Bee newspaper. It mentioned a man in the 1940s who had invented a water-injected carburetor.

Installed in a Roadmaster, the car made 100 miles per gallon, according to the editorial, which also said the patent was sold to Shell Oil. The writer asked: What happened to that invention and other fuel-efficiency inventions over the years?

Roberts, an actor and producer, and Jeremy Wagener, a writer and director, decided the answer to that question could lead to a compelling documentary. A year later, that documentary led them to Doane's Crete campus to interview Dr. Les Manns, professor of economics, and Dr. Brian Pauwels, assistant professor of psychology.

Titled "GasHole," the documentary delves into what they call the controversial history of the oil industry, oil prices and America's dependence on it.

Producers Roberts and Wagener completed the documentary in December and are screening it for distributors. It is narrated by actor and singer Peter Gallagher.

The project involved more than a year of research and filming. They interviewed Democrats and Republicans, Department of Energy officials, mechanical engineers, economists, sociologists and alternative fuel industry leaders, a list that includes the chairman of the House Science Committee, former President Jimmy Carter, and a president of USA Petroleum.

"We hit walls everywhere," Wagener said. "People would talk, then they couldn't talk."

They learned several patents such as the water-injected carburetor --patents that they were told would work - were shelved over the years, and that the general public doesn't know the potential of alternative fuels such as turning walnut oil into biodiesel.

"We uncovered shocking stories of unused patents and proven technological advancements and examined the controversial reasons why this technology has gone unused -- patents and technology that would have dramatically increased fuel economy over the last 60 years and could still be used today."

"This is a must see for anyone who is concerned about the price at the pump. We lay out great examples of how we as consumers have been manipulated by oil companies...the fact is, we really should not be dependent on foreign oil," Roberts said.

Manns and Pauwels offered neutral voices to the project. Roberts contacted Manns last fall about the professor's writing in the 1998 book "Market Dominance." Manns wrote about the history of Standard Oil leading up to the government-mandated breakup in 1911.

Standard Oil exercised tremendous control over the industry, Manns said, using tactics like mergers, predatory pricing and railroad rebates. When the federal government filed suit under the Sherman Act, Standard Oil was found guilty and broken up into 20 firms.

"It basically substituted 20 regional monopolies with Standard Oil ties for the Standard Oil Trust," Manns said.

Filmed on campus, Manns also talked about the relationship between the history of Standard Oil and the current oil market, as well as economic questions such as how gas price fluctuations affect Americans working for minimum wage.

Pauwels offered insight on the psychology behind America's dependence on oil and petroleum buying habits. It's difficult to persuade consumers to switch to alternative fuels, he said, because the benefits are for the environment and they are long term.

"It's easier to get people to change if the benefit is immediate and personal," Pauwels said.

Both professors are curious to see the final product.

"The documentary probably portrays oil companies as conspirators," Manns said. "But most of the changes in the oil industry can be explained economically...Not that I would argue the oil companies wouldn't go to great lengths to protect their investment in the oil-based economy."

Documentary producers said the final product shows that some of the same questionable business practices Manns wrote about still exist today, such as bullying and threatening to suppress inventions.

Roberts is a former talent agent best known for his role in "Chicks, Man," a 1999 feature film released on VHS and DVD.

Wagener is a director and award-winning writer and editor.

If distribution is secured, the film would likely be released in independent theaters such as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln. They also plan a nationwide college tour, which already includes stops in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Tucson, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Little Rock, Pittsburgh and Baton Rouge.

It will appeal to a broad audience, Roberts promises.

"We focused on keeping our point of view down the middle politically.

Our goal is to have "GasHole" endorsed by both Al Gore and Bill O'Reilly," Roberts said.