Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Journey to Your Tank
© 2007 Lisa Magonelli
Every moment, oil is surging up wells, being chemically sorted in vast refineries, sloshing its way across continents in pipelines, and being dispersed throughout the country in trucks to keep over three hundred million Americans mobile. The same miracle is effected in other nations across the globe. In Petroleum on the Brain, Lisa Margonelli begins at her local gas station and backtracks the supply line – riding with truckers, touring refineries, standing in the pit of oil exchanges, and filling her hands with ancient dirt that hasn’t seen sunlight in millions of years at the edge of a drilling operation. Although beginning with the American market, Margonelli’s travels take on a geopolitical message as she scrutinizes oil’s role in the destabilization of Africa and the middle east, and looks to the future in China. Although slightly dated (researched and written in 2004-2005), the majority of the book’s information remains relevant, and is delivered in humorous style. Petroleumbrims over with personality, as Margonelli connects with lives across the globe, and demonstrates through her travels how our lives, too, are knit together with those whose livelihood
Although gas stations are where most consumers of gasoline/petrol enter the market, and absorb the scorn of disgruntled drivers who see the price continuing to climb, the seemingly ubiquitous c-stations are the low men on the supply line, in control of nothing and making only a marginal profit on their gasoline during the best days. As witnessed by Margonelli as she spies fleets of trucks from different companies pulling up to the same pipelines, gasoline sold in the United States is fairly uniform. Some companies add a detergent, but pricing varies more depending on the location and the market than the product. Given how much oil is being produced, refined, shipped, and sold every hour, the pace of activity becomes frenetic as Margonelli travels further up the supply line, encountering harried supply dispatchers and middlemen. Although her book is about the oil industry, it’s a personal encounter with time invested in relationships on Margonelli’s part. For her, the gas station owner, the driver, the genius wildcatter in Texas — they are men and women of passion and intelligence, whose story is bound up with their profession.
Its beginnings scratch idle curiosity as to how the petroleum industry works, but Margonelli spends more time researching, her text develops broader appeal, examining the role oil plays in U.S. foreign policy. Here the book threatens to show its age: having virtually exhausted its home reservoirs of oil, she writes that the United States has to secure new supplies across the world, and to that end has been involved in a series of wars, directly or indirectly. A chapter on Iran sees her chat with both American sailors and Iranian oilmen regarding an incident during the Iraq-Iran war, in which half the Iranian navy was sunk by an American fleet despite the United States’ official non-combatant status. Magonelli also visits petro-states in South America and Africa, where corruption is apparently immortal; some of the tribal warfare in sub-Saharan Africa has its roots in villages receiving unequal shares of the loot when oil companies discovered their untapped potential. Ultimately, Magonelli believes we must look beyond petroleum, to cleaner and less volatile energy sources. In her final chapter, the story moves to China, where a then-ascendant economy was not only gobbling up goal, but dumping money into clean energy programs in the hopes of expanding China’s consumer fleet while not further destroying what little clean air remains.
The oil market has continued to evolve in the ten years since this book was originally, first doubling the highest price marked in her original next and then falling beneath it. The United States has become again (however temporarily) a net oil exporter, thanks to technological advices that make extracting oil in harder to reach places easier. Oil’s votility underscores its continuing importance to the world economy and political dramas; in the middle east, the swinish mob that is ISIS finances itself partially through the oil market. Given that oil won’t be bowing out to competition anytime soon, learning its cost and vagaries is utterly helpful for citizens of any country, and Magonelli’s account offers entertainment value to boot.