New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007

Fuel Lines

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
By Lisa Margonelli, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

There’s a lot of stuff we consume while barely pausing to consider where it comes from; it is easy, these days, to be insulated from production. Inquisitive writers profitably explore the knowledge gap: recent work about the life stories of handguns, French fries and Panama hats comes to mind. Tracy Kidder chronicled the creation of a computer in “The Soul of a New Machine,” and last year Michael Pollan traced the sources of our dinners in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” This year comes something new about those obscure practicalities of how does it get here: “Oil on the Brain,” by Lisa Margonelli.

It’s a great subject because oil is at once so familiar (the average American uses about three gallons of gasoline a day) and so obscure — how many of us have any idea where, exactly, our gas comes from, or how it was transformed from crude with a name like “light sweet” to the flammable cocktail we pump into our tanks? What other product is so much a part of our personal lives and so implicated in our foreign policy? As China and India spawn vast middle classes that want to drive cars, and as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela thumbs his nose at his largest customer, the United States, global oil supplies seem more precarious, and their provision more contentious, than ever before.

Margonelli, a fellow at the New America Foundation (and recently a guest columnist for The New York Times on the Web), says she got taken with the subject while in Prudhoe Bay, researching a story on new methods for the cleanup of oil spills. She watched a chemist ignite spilled crude with a baggie of napalm, and heard him expound on oil fields’ “ever-changing stew of complex compounds, endlessly unpredictable and absorbing. He began musing about the components of crude, from the light gassy hydrocarbons to the heavy gooey ones: All of them have distinct personalities.” And she was hooked.

The specialized knowledge of those who deal with oil is mainly what Margonelli sets out to channel in these pages. She traces the chain backward, from a San Francisco gas station near her home to the trucks of a jobber, or oil wholesaler, to a refinery south of Los Angeles, and then to a drilling rig in East Texas. Margonelli intrepidly loiters around the gas station at all hours, climbs aboard a tanker truck making oil deliveries and lucks into an emergency during her visit to the refinery, observing carefully and asking lots of questions when sirens sound and production halts. Her approach is quirky but comprehensive, informal but rigorous: Margonelli has a facility with numbers and an easy way with questions of policy, and the narrative passages here, lightly first-person and often funny, help make accessible the facts of our dependence on oil. Visits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve near the Gulf of Mexico and the New York Mercantile Exchange round out the American half of the book.

She could have stopped there. But 60 percent of America’s oil is now imported, and Margonelli is ambitious: she next visits four petrostates (Venezuela, Chad, Iran and Nigeria) and China, where oil suddenly matters a lot. Oil has enriched each of the petrostates, of course, just as it enriched Pennsylvania, then Texas, then Alaska, but there the similarities end; in Margonelli’s telling, oil has brought corruption in Chad; corruption, environmental disaster and political instability in Nigeria; a new strongman in Venezuela; extremism in Iran; and everywhere the widespread loss of national sovereignty to oil companies and international lenders — what Margonelli calls “the external locus of control.” A Chadian recounts a debate in the country’s new Parliament over the coming of oil — they had seen it start wars in Sudan and Libya, he recalls, and were fearful. A man had stood up and said something like: “In my area there is a certain type of bird. When you see that bird in the forest, you know you will lose either your mum or your dad. This is the case with petroleum. … Oil means that something will change — you cannot choose if it’s your mother or your father who will die. Something bad will happen whether you like it or not.”

Needless to say, this was not quite the scenario faced by Jed Clampett, the Beverly Hillbilly, when “black gold” burbled up from his property in the Ozarks. Oil’s enduring mystique in our country, the romance of Texas wildcatters and giant gas-guzzling cars, runs up against an effective foil in the overseas chapters, where we’re forced to confront how we get oil now. Petroleum has not solved poverty, and its production abroad is garbed in realpolitik and lots of nastiness.

Unfortunately, these chapters feel cut from a different cloth. While Margonelli spent days with a drilling rig’s “mud logger” in Texas, collecting his every folksy expression (“Put a dress on that pig and take it to the fair”), once out of the United States she’s more inclined to skim — conducting quick interviews in the manner of a foreign correspondent writing a feature. Well-drawn characters whom we got to know over many pages in the book’s first half — oil people Margonelli got to know by sitting in on their lives — cede to a new set who, a day after finishing the book, I have some trouble recalling. For the first time, in Iran, Margonelli describes her hotel room, the hotel’s breakfast room, her own awkward appearance in a big blue dress — she has stalled!

However, she turns this chapter around. It becomes one of the best in the book because of the passions Margonelli gets embroiled in. Everyone here seems to feel strongly about something. An American sailor who has done five tours in the gulf region, and took part in the shelling of an Iranian oil platform in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, says he was “shocked to be fighting Iraq after protecting them from Iran in ’88. If we’d predicted that, we should have let the Iranians take ’em down.”

Even better is a fellow journalist. Aresu Eqbali, a friend of a friend of a friend, helped Margonelli set up interviews from afar, and then accompanied her on a visit to Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. “In her mid-30s, she wears an olive drab coat and head scarf and deep red lipstick, which reflects her stealthy sense of humor. Disguised as a staid oil reporter, she’s got a mocking sense of the absurd, anger and a taste for old-fashioned, mildly dirty jokes.”

The two fly by helicopter to a platform that was bombed by Iraq during the war. “Tiny boxes stick above the surface of the sea, reminding me of dental work — little bridges and crowns,” Margonelli writes as they approach from the air. She looks at girders melted by the bombing, still unrepaired, and observes, “I’m trying to imagine the inferno of the platform burning, but there’s ice in my cup, and the rosewater reminds me of the sachets my grandmother used to put in with her clothes.” She describes men they meet later as “cheerfully submissive to the platform, as if they’ve married someone far larger and more powerful than themselves.”

The women are greeted by an ebullient character named Mr. Ebrahimi, who gives them a tour of another platform, known as Salman Complex, “my home of 20 years.” But Ebrahimi’s cheeriness soon gives way to seething anger as he describes the day American warships attacked the lightly armed platform. The Marines gave little warning, and platform employees had to jump into the shark-infested water, some without life jackets. “We couldn’t defend. I myself was in the middle of the sea, with no gun. It upsets you; it makes you full of hatred.” A manager named Aslani grows even more distraught recalling American attacks, and Aresu has to start poking Margonelli to get her to end the interview.

The fury leaves a big impression on the author. “For me, the abiding lesson of Operation Praying Mantis” — in which Americans attacked the platforms — “is Aslani’s anger. Winning, particularly in the politics of the petrostate, is little more than the start of a long war.” In other words, these battles have not supplied us with a new beginning. Iran is still there, with its large share of the Middle East’s 57 percent of the world’s oil reserves, and 45 percent of its natural gas. Margonelli notes that President Bush promised last year to “make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past” by 2025. “Even if that is possible, which I doubt,” she says, “we still have 19 years of living together left.”

The short final chapter, on China, begins with a recitation of figures on China’s exploding smog problem, car industry and thirst for oil. Then quickly we’re in Shanghai, where the book abruptly concludes with an account of a competition for alternative-fuel and low-emission vehicles. These are hardly visible in China now, and the chapter feels disconnected from the pages that have come before it — until, in her epilogue, Margonelli segues into reflections on the need to reform our relationship with oil.

“The one lesson I’ve learned from writing this book is that there is no such thing as cheap gas,” she says. New strategies are needed to steer us toward “many fuels, not just one.” The challenges are technological but also political. “Oil diplomacy, long outsourced to oil companies, and increasingly to the U.S. military, needs attention and leadership. The special relationships the United States nurtured with countries like Venezuela and the security guarantees offered to Saudi Arabia have lost their appeal; and the threats, which include sanctions and military intervention, have lost their effect.”

Daniel Yergin’s magisterial book, “The Prize” (1991), remains unsurpassed as a modern history of oil. But “Oil on the Brain,” kaleidoscopic, accessible and focused on our present quandary, is a timely sequel.

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