The Oil Enforcement Agency takes a stand at the New York International Automobile Show.
By Susan Cosier
Outside of the New York International Automobile Show at New York City’s Javits Center, as the smell of burnt pretzels wafts through the air, a group of 10 people form a line. Standing shoulder to shoulder in black t-shirts that read “OEA,” they put their hands over their hearts as they take an oath to reduce oil use in America.
The people in line are members of the Oil Enforcement Agency (OEA), and the oath is a skit—one of many stunts the group has pulled at auto shows and car dealerships across the country. The group is the comedic arm of the Free From Oil Campaign, which was created by the non-profit Rainforest Action Network to “end America’s oil dependence, reduce oil related conflicts, and stop global climate change by convincing the entire auto industry to dramatically improve fuel efficiency and eliminate vehicle greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the OEA’s website.
The troupe descended on four other auto expos in the U.S. this year, but the New York show has been one of the most exciting. Seventy-two hours earlier, a few OEA-ers were nearly arrested for scaling the Javits Center and hanging a banner that pictured an SUV running over the earth. Today (Saturday, April 7, 2007) armed with citizen surveys, “parking tickets” for SUVs, and a repertoire of chants and skits, they’re reaching out to car lovers, warning them of the dangers of gas guzzling vehicles.
Once inside the auto show, a small OEA task force huddles together as Jodie VanHorn, the team leader, gives instructions. They’re going to “impound” (which in OEA speak means put caution tape around) the Toyota Tundra, whose measly mileage (14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway), makes it one of the most polluting of vehicles on the road today. “We step up in the absence of better leadership,” says VanHorn. Then she gives the order: “Agents, it’s time to impound the Tundra.”
As they walk over to the vehicle, preparing to don their OEA hats, ear pieces, and sunglasses, the activists seem a little jittery, but focused on their mission. Groups of auto-enthusiasts ogle the truck. A passerby says to his wife, “This is the top rated truck in the country now.”
Soon, the car is surrounded by yellow caution tape and the group is chanting loudly. “What do we want? Clean cars! When do we want them? Now!” The group once again forms a tight line, and its collective voice crescendos before a security guard asks them to leave. They agree to leave peacefully (but with a bang), continuing their battle cry as they leave the building: “Oil and gas and SUVs, we need higher MPGs!” As the OEA exits the building, some onlookers admit to one another that they think what the group is saying is right.
Back at their base outside of the center, the task force reconnects with the rest of the group. They reflect on what they accomplished: they handed out a lot of surveys, got a good response from the public, and “impounded” the vehicle for approximately 3.5 minutes. Best of all, they got their message out.
The agents clearly enjoy themselves on their missions. “It’s not just fun and games, but modeling what the government should be doing, but isn’t,” says Andrew Boyd, one of the organizers of the group whose OEA moniker is Agent Chartreuse. If the auto industry focused on improving fuel efficiency, the U.S. could reduce its dependence on foreign oil and create more than 160,000 new jobs, says Agent Blood Orange, better known as Mike Hudema, citing an analysis done by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Companies have a very real choice.”
To make sure those companies are held accountable for their choices, the OEA is opening regional offices all over the country, and Hudema hopes that as the movement grows, activists will start to canvas at even more auto shows. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but the OEA agents believe it’s also an important one. “Big oil has its fingerprints on many of the things that are wrong with this country and this world,” says Boyd. “Wherever you look, oil is there.”
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