Monday, June 06, 2005

"Oil Storm": a fabric of holes

Authors: n/a
FX TV movie, 2005
Apocalypse Type: Economic meltdown
Rating: *1/2 (of 5)

Before getting into anything detailed, I'll say this -- Since it's Fox and they generally suck when it comes to portraying reality in news, I didn't expect much from their "future documentary" Oil Storm. I wasn't too surprised. Also, this technically isn't an apocalypse tale, but something like this could happen and could indeed send our society into a major tailspin, possibly even spark war(s) that could become apocalyptic. (It made me think of the "Food and Fuel Wars" that form the backdrop to Michael Kube-McDowell's Enigma, where oil supplies have dried up and left civilization in a rather paranoid quasi-18th century state. I'll review this one at some point.)

Anyway, back to the movie. It should be subtitled "Many Unanswered Questions."

In summary, a nasty hurricane wipes out a major US oil processing port in Louisiana in late summer 2005, suddenly reducing the nation's supply by 2 million barrels/day, causing prices to spiral rapidly upward ($4.29/gal for regular within a couple days; peaked at $8+/gal later in the film, and returned to $4.29/gal at end). Obviously, those prices cause all kinds of problems, causing the gov't to draw 1 million barrels/day from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve and seek extra Saudi production.

The Saudi gov't agrees, their militants don't, we send troops from home to protect the oil fields, and all hell breaks loose, ultimately cutting Saudi production by a third. (There's only a passing mention of the troops in Iraq, and no mention of the fact that they'd be a lot easier to move to Saudi Arabia than would troops stateside. Nor does it mention the likely escalation of civil war there, or in other Muslim lands, when Iraqi rebels see the success of Saudi militants.) A bad accident closes Houston's port & oil processing facilities for months, leaving people freezing in their homes in winter. Thousands die in Boston alone.

(That in itself, sparked an observation: One character was a Boston EMT whose mother lived alone, was already ill, and died. Why didn't they move in together?!? That's obviously a solution -- it's a lot cheaper to heat one apartment than two...)

The suburbs start depopulating as people either head into the cities to be closer to services or into the countryside to get away from the protests and riots that have sparked martial law in some cities. (That's my guess, but the film all but ignores where they all go and what they do when they get there. Where do they live? How do they eat, esp. without jobs?) Farmers begin to agitate that if nothing changes quickly, they won't be able to plant come spring, since they can't afford fuel, farm subsidies have been cut, and many necessities based on petroleum are now scarce.

Bankrupties skyrocket in many business sectors, with one character saying "People are getting rid of anything that has to do with oil, which is pretty much everything." Stocks plummet, ultimately losing trillions.

The gov't turns to Russia and negotiates a new oil supply, China buys it with a higher bid while it's in transit, and the US buys it back with a $16B investment in Russian oil infrastructure improvements. Things begin to return to "normal."

Seems pretty mundane, huh? Well, it was.

But what was interesting was what they DIDN'T talk about, or barely skimmed over. Only once did they mention, in passing, the need to explore alternative energy sources, but there's absolutely zero effort to DO it. No funding increases to public transit, no mention at all of coal, solar, hydro, even nuclear power (even though Bush, who is supposedly still president in this film, has talked about hiking nuclear power), even though they make it clear nobody can afford to drive SUVs that cost $200 a tank to fill. (At those prices, even my Geo Prism would cost $90 to fill, and I get decent mileage.)

On several occasions, they talked about how much damage this was doing to the economy, but many overflight scenes of the cities show many cars on the roads. No buses or trains, even in Boston, which has a popular subway system. They said businesses were closing and stockholders were dumping oil stocks, yet somehow those firms are still in business & able to receive the Russian oil at the end. (At one point, they mention 30% unemployment, I think it was.) Tell me, how do you resume businesses when your employees have left town? When your stocks are junk & you have no money?

Too many things in this film are taken for granted -- one of them being the news media. The film's style is based on the news documentary, but how do you have news coverage if the reporters & cameramen cannot afford to get to the places were news is happening or fuel for newspaper distribution? I could see a lot of coverage via Internet, with people writing about their own areas, but mainstream media would be very hard pressed to maintain their coverage of anything outside the cities.

Also, although it mentions in passing that this crisis affects other countries, China is still somehow an economic powerhouse capable of paying "any price" for Russian oil. In reality, without our economy buying Chinese products, they'd be in worse shape than we are, and many other advanced countries would be far worse still. Japan would be starving, Europe would be in trouble. What would China's reaction be to our overbidding them? Maybe an invasion of Siberia to take the oil they couldn't buy? How would Europe react? As usual, Fox portrays the US as being almost in isolation, unaffected by most of the world.

And are we sure we'd bother trying a second bid for the Russian shipment? We'd be pretty desperate by then. I could imagine someone (esp. given Bush's penchant for using force) sending the Navy to hijack the Russian tankers, which is what I thought was going to happen during the commercial break.

Speaking of Russia, even if we did negotiate such a deal, their infrastructure is rusting and would need a fair amount of work BEFORE they could supply us with any substantial portion of the needs we now get from the Saudis. We might get an emergency shipment, but not a continuing supply, and even a supply still doesn't solve the problem that caused this crisis: Oil addiction. The film mentions protests against oil companies, but doesn't take that to its logical conclusion -- widespread protest vs. Bush himself because he's an oil man.

Our supplier may change, just like a smackhead will find a new dealer if his gets locked up, but he's still a smackhead. Typically, Fox didn't explore this issue at all. The ending only guarantees a similar, but probably more severe, crisis will happen in the near future.

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