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Steve Shagan’s The Formula and the Future of the Coal Industry

It seems the name Steve Shagan is not much heard these days, but once upon a time he was fairly prominent as both a novelist and a screenwriter. He wrote the novel Save the Tiger, and the screenplay for its cinematic adaptation (1973), the film for which Jack Lemmon won his Oscar, and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the historical drama about the S.S. St. Louis, Voyage of the Damned (1976). His crime novel City of Angels became the film Hustle (1975), while his later scripts included those for Michael Cimino’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1984 novel The Sicilian (film 1987) and, in those years in which legal thrillers and Richard Gere both remained robust box office draws, Primal Fear (1996).

As it happened these works, if in many cases commercially and critically successful at the time, have not endured. (Looking back I can’t help but be struck by how while dozens of Lemmon’s films have become classics — the Billy Wilder movies like The Apartment or The Fortune Cookie, or the movies produced from Neil Simon’s material like The Prisoner of Second Avenue, or Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses, or Costa-Gavras’ Missing, or The China Syndrome, or The Odd Couple — the movie for which he actually got an Academy Award is practically forgotten. I remember Hustle mainly for the unlikely pairing of Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve as the leads, which the film itself seemed to underline with their leaving a screening of Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman together.) But all the same I do remember reading a number of Shagan’s thrillers — among them 1979’s The Formula (which, it might be added, became yet another feature film).

Those thrillers, The Formula included, were very much of their time — high-stakes, jet-setting international thrillers where the accent was more on danger and suspense than big, minutely detailed action film-type set pieces. (They seemed especially ’70s in their pre-Reagan-era sex-and-drugs-partyness; their blend of essentially conventional politics with a hint of post-Watergate cynicism to keep a modicum of credibility; and their Los Angeles-ness in an era in which that city was still the locus of American filmmaking, their period cop drama cliché and especially their L.A. cop cliché when that was particularly prominent. “Goddamn ulcer!” yelled Tactical Chief John Nolan before he “popped a Gelusil from the open bottle on his desk” — and I pictured it as if it were on a movie screen in front of me.)

The results were satisfactory enough as the thrillers they were meant to be (at least, to a reader like myself who preferred the ’70s stuff to the ’90s with its psychobabblers and pathologists and such), but certainly not masterpieces, and even less satisfactory when one moved away from their effectiveness as mere diversion to their handling of their themes. (The big “discovery” in Shagan’s rather Dan Brown-ish 1984 novel The Discovery, for example, was particularly underwhelming, not least because of the weakness of the historical premise.) Still, The Formula had its interest on that level. Set against the backdrop of the then-current energy crisis the book revolved around the pursuit of a technique the Third Reich developed for converting coal into oil much coveted by various interests, forcing the hero on a danger-filled international journey to recover it. Some years after reading the book, when there was another energy crisis upon the world evocative of the ’70s (that of 2003–2008), I found myself thinking of how that theme still seemed depressingly relevant as people spoke of “peak” oil as a very near-term possibility, and some speculated about the conversion of some of our more abundant coal into scarcer oil as a way to relieve the pressure. The intense concern about peak oil, and possible coping mechanisms such as that, passed amid the combination of global economic stagnation (since the Great Recession growth has been at best tepid, with all that implied for the rate at which the demand for energy has increased), a shale boom that has after many false starts produced a relatively cheap expansion of fossil fuel supplies (such that with gas so readily available it’s actually become tougher to sell coal-fired electricity), and the advances renewables have made (however much a Big Coal, Big Gas, Big Oil, Big Nuclear-boosting mainstream press continues to sneer at them), while the ever more aggressive assessments of the severity of the climate crisis have the ecological harm our fossil fuels will do seeming a more pressing danger than a shortfall of production. (Tellingly “Leave it in the Ground!” has become a slogan.)

Of course, the fact remains that, even in the most favorable scenario, transport is shifting away from fossil fuels only more slowly than electricity production. We may already have electric cars, but the speed at which the world will replace internal combustion engine-powered vehicles remains open to question — while alternatives replacing oil in aircraft and ships is a somewhat more distant prospect. Might it be that the coal industry, currently tottering on the basis of its uncompetitiveness in providing electricity, survive on the basis of sustaining that need for cheap oil? The prospect seems dim these days. Yet if the prospect of a peak oil-induced supply crunch has only been postponed as some suggest, and a method for converting coal to oil becomes cost-effective in the resulting market (the way coal-fired electricity has, temporarily, become salable amid an energy crunch) we could see coal remain a part of the scene for as long as it takes to move past oil altogether — especially should the energy transition drag.

Hopefully, it won’t — any longer than it already has.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.