Tapping the Fat of the Land


During a keynote speech at the 2007 Gas and Oil Expo, officials from ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council (NPC) addressed the specter of peak oil and presented a radical proposal. “Without oil, at least four billion people would starve,” NPC’s Shepard Wolf warned. In order to “keep the oil flowing, we need something infinitely more abundant than whales.” Wolf’s solution: It’s time to consider transforming billions of dying humans into biofuel.

“Some 150,000 people already die from climate-change-related effects every year,” ExxonMobil’s Florian Osenberg argued. “Those bodies could be turned into fuel for the rest of us.” Wolf and Osenberg used a PowerPoint presentation to introduce Vivoleum™, a new Exxon product rendered from human fat. The attentive crowd happily lit the complimentary Vivoleum candles placed on their luncheon tables.

Wolf and Osenberg were, in reality, The Yes Men, two anti-corporate tricksters on a mission to save the world “one prank at a time.” But their Soylent-Green-Fuel stunt showed that Big Oil, as represented by these industry higher-ups, was open to the idea of harvesting one of the continent’s greatest untapped assets — the tons of excess fat being toted around by chubby masses of citizen-consumers.

America is literally collapsing under the strain of overweight citizens. Disneyland’s Small World ride, designed in the 1960s (when the average male park visitor weighed 175 pounds) is now being re-built to haul passengers weighing more than 200 pounds. In 2004, a Baltimore water taxi built to carry 25 adults weighing an average of 140 pounds sank because the combined weight of the boat’s 25 passengers was 700 pounds more than the vessel could handle.

Meanwhile, the fattening of America is fattening the coffers of Big Oil. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports that super-sized passengers forced US airlines to burn 350 million extra gallons of fuel in 2000 at a cost of $275 million — while pouring an additional 2.8 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. A University of Illinois study estimates that the growing heft of US car passengers over the past 40 years has required burning 938 million extra gallons of gas — the equivalent of adding 1.7 million cars to the road. Estimated windfall for the oil companies: $2.8 billion a year.

In a world where federal corn subsidies, corporate fast foods, and petroleum-based fertilizers have transformed Americans into fat-bearing animals, it’s no surprise that petroleum executives would see a kind of logic in harvesting human lard to produce an infinitely renewable resource to fuel America’s economic engine.

The World Health Organization estimates that 38.8 million Americans are now “obese” (a body mass index of 30 or higher). That factors out to 583 million tons of excess body fat. Since a kilogram of human fat contains 7,200 kilocalories of energy and a barrel of oil generates 1,410,579 kilocalories, Americans are hauling around, at minimum, the fat-equivalent of 29.2 trillion barrels of oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, that is as much oil as the entire world consumed in 2003. Talk about an untapped domestic resource.

But it’s all a joke, right? If the concept of “flab gas” leaves you flabbergasted, prepare for a shock: Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital has signed a deal to supply Norwegian entrepreneur Lauri Venoy with 3,000 gallons per week of liposuction leftovers. Venoy figures each 3,000 gallons of biofat will produce 2,600 gallons of biodiesel, sufficient to fuel a Hummer for a week.

And on March 1, 2008, New Zealander Peter Bethune launched his latest attempt to break the around-the-world sailing record in his Earthrace eco-boat, a vessel partially powered by human fat. According to Bethune, “Ten pounds of fat … would drive a car about 50 miles, once converted.” Bethune and two crew members personally donated 2.5 pounds of body fat to Earthrace’s fuel tank — enough to travel nine of the trip’s 27,600 miles.

With liposuction already America’s most popular cosmetic surgery (455,000 procedures in 2006 alone), the day may soon arrive when patriotic Americans can boost their health and the nation’s oil reserves by volunteering to make donations to a Federal Liposuction Aggregation Bureau. FLAB’s slogan could be: “A waist is a terrible thing to waste.”

There is, of course, a simpler way of fighting Big Oil and the Big Bulge: Boycott corporate fast foods, eat local, and eat less.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and the editor of the online investigative Web site, www.the-edge.org.

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