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Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipelineby Lisa Margonelli
Synopses & Reviews
Oil on the Brain is a smart, surprisingly funny account of the oil industry: the people, economies, and pipelines that bring us petroleum, brilliantly illuminating a world we encounter every day.
Americans buy ten thousand gallons of gasoline a second, without giving it much of a thought. Where does all this gas come from? Lisa Margonelli's desire to learn took her on a one-hundred thousand mile journey from her local gas station to oil fields half a world away. In search of the truth behind the myths, she wriggled her way into some of the most off-limits places on earth: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the New York Mercantile Exchange's crude oil market, oil fields from Venezuela, to Texas, to Chad, and even an Iranian oil platform where the United States fought a forgotten one-day battle.
In a story by turns surreal and alarming, Margonelli meets lonely workers on a Texas drilling rig, an oil analyst who almost gave birth on the NYMEX trading floor, Chadian villagers who are said to wander the oil fields in the guise of lions, a Nigerian warlord who changed the world price of oil with a single cell phone call, and Shanghai bureaucrats who dream of creating a new Detroit.
Deftly piecing together the mammoth economy of oil, Margonelli finds a series of stark warning signs for American drivers.
"In the last few years, just about everyone has had 'oil on the brain' at some point, as record gas prices and a disastrous war have called our dependency into question. But though the U.S. burns 10,000 gallons of gasoline a second, few of us know how oil is created and drilled, how gas stations compete or what actually goes on in a refinery — let alone what happens in the mysterious Strategic Petroleum Reserve, where the U.S. government stores roughly 700 million barrels of oil in underground salt caverns on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Margonelli answers these questions and more, before examining some of the key patches in the oil industry's geopolitical quilt: source countries like Chad, where promises of real local growth fall hopelessly short, or China, which, 'by 2025, perhaps, will import as much crude oil as the U.S. does now.' Writing in a witty, first-person voice, Margonelli criticizes corruption in places like Nigeria, while expressing her 'love of hydrocarbons' for the unlikeliness of their formation and the ingenuity required to extricate them. This is an original, open-minded look at a subject about which everyone has an opinion." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Before reading Lisa Margonelli's 'Oil on the Brain,' I never would have called the process of energy production 'fascinating.' But this thoroughly engrossing and entertaining book travels to the heart of Texas and across continents to show exactly how the gas in our tanks gets there — as well as its financial, social and environmental costs. Margonelli's dogged reporting, which includes pulling an... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) all-nighter at a drilling rig and writing a 'spicy' introduction letter to an Iranian government official to get access to his country's oil operations, exposes aspects of the oil industry that are not visible at your local pump. Much of what Margonelli chronicles is grim, especially when she investigates how oil production has distorted petro-states such as Venezuela, Chad and Nigeria. Many Americans are now familiar with how Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has used his country's oil wealth to assert its independence from the United States, but they may not realize how many of Venezuela's poor still live in slums as they wait for some of Chavez's largesse to trickle down. Chad and Nigeria are grimmer still, since their heads of state don't even claim that their countries' petrodollars might improve their citizens' lives. When an oil consortium led by Exxon-Mobil gave Chad's president, Idriss Diby, an advance of $25 million, Margonelli writes, he used the money to bolster his own political strength rather than to improve the lives of his citizens: 'He immediately spent $4.5 million of it on weapons to fight rebels within his own borders.' In the small Nigerian village of Oloibiri, village elders wonder why Shell and other companies have extracted oil from their land and left them with nothing but a nonfunctioning water system and a rotting hospital and school, neither of which the companies paid to staff. 'Millions and billions of dollars have left here,' one elder tells her. 'It's like a snail. They've taken the flesh and left the shell.' Margonelli paints only a slightly rosier picture of the U.S. oil industry, which she describes as on a steady path to decline. Seventy percent of American oil workers, she writes, have lost their jobs since 1981. Even the tanker truck dispatchers and gas station operators who make money off Americans' voracious gasoline consumption are under intense pressure to bet correctly on the constantly changing petroleum prices. 'Oil on the Brain' is at its best when the author manages to connect with the men and women she writes about, moving the energy debate beyond stereotypes. One of the most touching moments comes when Margonelli discovers that she and a fourth-generation oilman, C.D. Roper, both took care of sheep when they were younger. 'C.D. and I are both unreformed sheep-loving nerds,' she writes. 'His pet lamb was named Rainbow, and sometime around midnight he begins to cry at the thought of the cruel uncle who killed Rainbow and ate him.' Roper emerges as one of the book's most compelling characters, a man who has managed to make money in a tough, risky business and would consider quitting if he didn't get such an adrenaline rush from hitting pay dirt. Margonelli uses lively, vivid prose to tell her story, though she overwrites at times and inserts herself too frequently into the narrative. (My least favorite line: 'The hands are all young: Jeans, overalls, fresh pink cheeks, and carelessly spread dirt lend them the innocence of characters in a Norman Rockwell painting.') For the most part, however, she hits her mark by making wry observations, and she puts many of her stories in context with facts and figures that provide a broader sense of how the oil economy works. The one thing the book lacks is concrete suggestions for how Americans can extricate themselves from what President Bush has called an 'addiction to oil.' In the epilogue, Margonelli alludes vaguely to the idea that the next oil gusher 'may be in our brains,' but aside from a general call for energy conservation, her book does little to show how that gusher might emerge. Still, by the end, Margonelli has demonstrated the one lesson she says she has learned: 'There is no such thing as cheap gas.' Juliet Eilperin covers environmental issues for The Washington Post." Reviewed by Marc LeepsonJames M. LindsayRon CharlesColin McGinnMichael DirdaJonathan YardleyArt TaylorJuliet Eilperin, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Starting at a local gas station, Margonelli sets off to meet the people behind the pump, who lead her deep into the economics, politics, chemistry, and culture of petroleum. Along the oil supply chain, through the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the NYMEX oil market, she finds unexpected delights and troubling contradictions.
About the Author
LISA MARGONELLI is currently an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, Business 2.0, Discover, and Jane, and was the recipient of a Sundance Institute Fellowship and an excellence in journalism award from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. She is based in Oakland, California.
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