Hollywood: silly hype about synfuels

Hollywood's latest expose film, "The Formula," has it all -- big stars (George C. Scott and Marlon Brando), big plot (nasty oil barons withhold German synfuel formula), and big advance publicity.

Unfortunately, the publicity lets the plot down. As fiction, it might be good entertainment. But the story is being promoted as a reflection of reality and that's bunk.

There are no "secret" formulas missing from German World War II synfuel developments. Indeed, there are no magic formulas of any kind for making synfuels. All it takes is mammoth capital investment in known processes (or processes being developed), a lot of clever engineering to make those processes work efficiently, considerable hassle to resolve complex environmental and political issues, and heavy federal subsidies to support what will be an uneconomically costly oil substitute for some time to come.

However, synfuel realities don't fit the simplistic notion which the film projects -- namely that industrial suppression is to blame for the US not being a synfuel leader today. Writer-producer Steve Shagan, who based the film on his earlier novel, says, "It's not a conspiracy theory, it's a cartel theory. . . . All we wanted to do is show there's an overworld that's even more dangerous than the underworld. If we're not careful, and if our bickering over energy continues, the world as we know it could blow up right before our eyes."

He's right about the need for a coherent US energy policy. But stirring up groundless suspicions of industrial villains won't help the nation find it.

The technology embodied in the 15 synfuels plants Germany had in 1944 is hardly secret. Standard Oil of Indiana had helped build a synfuel plant in Germany just before the war and shared many synfuel patents with I. G. Farben. The postwar Technical Oil Mission confiscated some 175 tons of German synfuel documents now deposited at Texas A&M University. Moreover, the mission wrote up its findings in several hundred publicly available reports.

Prof. Wilbur C. Schroeder of the University of Maryland, who headed the mission, recently told the journal Science: "I didn't have any reason then to think anyone was holding back, and I don't have any reason now."

Meanwhile, it's ironic that the public actually is being deprived of valuable information on the German synfuel work, not by industrial chicanery but by government neglect. The Department of Energy now is refusing to fund the Texas A&M project that has been translating, abstracting, and indexing the material. Without this processing, the sheer mass of the documents makes them next to useless. As of this writing, the project was at a virtual standstill with its future in doubt.

If Shagan is serious about wanting to make the most of German synfuel experience, he could send the profits from his film to Texas A&M and revitalize their project.

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