Judge Russell Engebretson prefers his oil straight-up.
"I kept trying to counter Senator Murkowski's holding up the white sheet of paper and telling people that's all there is for nine months of the year, because I've been up there year-round and I've seen wildlife all over up there. I haven't seen Murkowski, though."—Robert Thompson
Oil on Ice is a short documentary sponsored by the small, primarily volunteer-run Northern Alaska Environmental Center (NAEC), which not surprisingly is opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The film contains some beautiful Alaskan wildlife cinematography, including one truly stunning shot of a grazing Caribou herd that must have numbered in the thousands. For contrast, we get an aerial view of the massive, grotesque Prudhoe Bay drilling operation that abuts ANWR to the west. As the documentary states, over ninety per cent of the north Alaskan coast is already open to oil exploration or development, and Prudhoe Bay is covered by an industrial site that sprawls across 1,000 square miles. The drilling complex is the source of the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline that stretches south for eight hundred miles to the ill-fated Prince William Sound, where tankers await their cargo of crude. Happily, there is more scenic footage to help scrub those industrial images from the viewer's mind. While the wilderness scenery is delightful, there is ample interview material as well.
Several environmentalists and native Alaskans are interviewed: Gwich'in author and activist Adeline Peter Raboff talks about her childhood Caribou hunting trips with her grandfather, and how subsistence hunting is still a vital aspect of the Gwich'in tribe's way of life; marine toxicologist Riki Ott discusses the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 that destroyed the fishing industry and the pristine coastline of Prince Willam Sound, and how Exxon continues to downplay the disaster and still refuses to pay a settlement to the residents; and Robert Thompson, a soft-spoken wilderness guide who resides on the island of Katovik, travels to Washington D.C. to lobby against the incursion of oil companies into the refuge, and talks affectingly of the way of life that will be lost if oil extraction proceeds. There are also less effective interviews with Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'll get to those Pope and Lovin interviews, and why I feel they drag down the film, in just a moment.
There is also archival footage of Senate and Congress fights over ANWR, extensive discussion of global warming, and some history of the push to open up the wilderness area going back to the first Bush presidency. A fair amount of information is presented in slightly less than one hour, but not so much as to overwhelm the viewer.
Early on in the documentary, narrator Peter Coyote says, "The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on this north coast of Alaska is at the center of a fateful controversy: to drill or not to drill." His words are underscored by a film clip of two bighorn sheep butting heads. Sometimes that visual metaphor is played out in a simplified "us versus them" theme. No doubt, there is sharp division between proponents of drilling and environmentalists, but the filmmakers, in their zeal to promote their agenda, occasionally err by lionizing people who don't deserve such treatment. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, for example, talks a good fight, but in reality he is a vastly overpaid executive ($200,000 a year) of a Big Green outfit more devoted to maintaining its bloated bureaucracy than to protecting the Alaskan north shore. ANWR is a cash cow for the big environmental outfits and the Democrats, because it's a fight that can be trotted out year after year to extract donations from well-meaning liberals. Most oil companies are not interested in ANWR and are overjoyed to draw attention away from their projects elsewhere.
Observe, too, how the film treats Democratic Senator John Kerry as a stalwart advocate of environmental protection. Kerry is presented as the champion of ANWR, followed by clips of windbag Senators Kit Bond and Trent Lott, Republicans from Mississippi and Missouri respectively. To hear Bond and Lott (from a March 2002 C-Span broadcast), one is led to believe the future of the Republic and pure bodily fluids of all Americans are in peril if oil rigs and pipelines are not allowed to spider web the Alaskan wilderness. These politicians would come off as buffoons in a debate against Shakes the Clown; their ineptitude makes the soporific Kerry appear statesman-like. Kerry, however, is a poor choice for an environmental spokesman. He is the guy who walked out of a meeting with James Hoffa of the Teamsters and told the press he wouldn't open ANWR to drilling, but "we'll drill everywhere else like never before." He also supports "clean coal," which translates to mountain-top removal in West Virginia. As mountains are leveled, entire rivers have been buried throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The documentary errs in presenting Kerry as a foe of Big Oil.
In contrast, the interview with Amory Loving of the Rocky Mountain Institute just seems to be an extended infomercial for auto manufacturers. Lovins proselytizes for fuel-efficient cars (curiously, he ignores mass transit options such as light rail). His theory is that greenhouse warming and demand for oil will plummet if gasoline-guzzling passenger vehicles are replaced by a variety of fuel efficient cars. Maybe it would have made a difference if auto makers had taken that path at least 10 to 20 years ago, but now, between greenhouse warming and fossil fuel depletion, it is simply too late. Automobiles, no matter how fuel-efficient, are as dead as the fossil fuels they run on. Lovins also seems to think it is no great matter to replace the old gasoline-burner with a shiny new vehicle of the future. Perhaps from his gorgeous manse of rough-hewn, hand-fitted stone in the Rocky Mountains, aglitter with an array of solar panels and filled with leafy greenery, it is an easy thing to surmise that a typical working class American can shell out $30,000 or more for a miniscule gasoline/electric hybrid auto. He is out-of-touch with the economic reality of most citizens. Naturally, many will disagree, but that's my take on his ideas, and his interview steers the film away from its central thesis—the exploitation of ANWR.
There is nothing extra special about the DVD transfer, though it is quite adequate for a TV documentary. The DVD soundtrack is crisp and clear, which makes the dialogue easy to understand, and the full frame picture is sharp and displays a decent color pallet.
The extras are worth one viewing, except for the bonus interviews with Pope and Lovins, which are disposable. I would rather have seen more interviews with Alaskan natives and residents. "DVD Content" extras are usually nothing more than an official website link, but the "DVD Tool Kit" included here is an excellent resource that contains nearly two dozen documents for viewers who might want to take a proactive stance against oil-drilling in ANWR. It is easily the best extra on the disc.
Despite my previous caveats over some aspects of the film, I found Oil on Ice to be a good, basic introduction (from an anti-drilling point-of-view) to the oil extraction debate as it relates to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's worth a rental to those who agree, at least tentatively, with the film's viewpoint, and will probably yield a few bits of information that even savvy environmentalists may not have run across while researching the ANWR issues.
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