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.)
Looks at the economics of the petroleum industry and traces how crude oil from fields around the world eventually becomes the gasoline for automobiles.
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.
What made you decide to write about oil?
I covered Saddam's birthday party in Iraq in 2001, and it was obvious that the culture, Saddam – everything was enabled by oil. Then I had another assignment from a small [Native American] village in the far north of Alaska that had been protesting development there. They saw themselves as fighting not only oil development but oil culture. I realized how little I knew about oil, yet how much my life was entangled with it. Oil is almost always covered on the business pages, but I wanted to find this other story – the story you wouldn't expect to find.
Oil is such a complex subject; how did you know where to begin?
Once I decided to start at the gas station – with a portrait of consumership – it all made sense. You have to understand why consumers act the way they do, and how they defy textbook economic rationality, to understand the kinds of cartwheels the rest of the system does.
What will it take for us to consume less gas?
Things outside the country are going to cause the price to rise. And the ways we had of keeping prices low are basically falling apart. Inside the country, I don't think the issue is one person driving an SUV. It's a very wide change that needs to happen. Since the 1930s, the government has set out to assure supply. What we really need to do is address demand and limit it in ways that are good for our economy.
Lots of people think high gas prices are a price-gouging conspiracy by big oil companies, but you advocate looking at the big picture. What does that mean?
We're facing big issues that will need complicated solutions. In China, bureaucrats are thinking about the next hundred years, and we've essentially outsourced that planning to the oil companies. So we need to start thinking about how we are going to insulate ourselves against environmental and economic catastrophe. Then, on an existential level, we need to say, "our destiny is essentially in our hands." But to really start making long-term plans and start thinking strategically about how we're going to do this, we need to bring the oil companies to the table.
(Originally published in Publishers Weekly)