Book review: Oil on the brain

Monday 30 June 2008

Book>> Oil on the Brain by Lisa Margonelli Broadway Books New York 2008

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On October 28, 2002 Lisa Margonelli stood on Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field, observing an experiment to clean up oil spills in water, sponsored by the us M inerals Management Service. She watched a chemist ignite spilled crude with napalm, and heard him expound on oil fields: "ever-changing stew of complex compounds, endlessly unpredictable and absorbing". As he began musing about the components of crude, from the light gassy hydrocarbons to the heavy gooey ones, Margonelli knew she was hooked. How does all the oil we consume get to the petrol station?

This seemingly simple question takes Margonelli around continents. She starts with the gas station near her home in San Francisco, moves into distribution, studies the process of refining and drilling, including a bewildering trip to the New York Mercantile Exchange and a riotous chapter on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It's a somewhat quirky approach, but rigorous nevertheless. In the first six chapters of the book, Margonelli's technical knowledge pulls back the curtain on the infrastructure of the petroleum business and its relationship to the American standard of living.

While oil never leaves centre stage, Margonelli does a masterful job of humanizing its passage from underground to pump handle. In her colourful profile of the local gas station, the proprietor is to be pitied rather than scorned: gas rarely gets a windfall. Significant profits come from impulse buys. Forget the gallon of gas; it's soda bottles and sunglasses that pays the bills.

Margonelli next hitches a ride with a truck driver as he negotiates his shiny tanker truck through the misery of Los Angeles traffic to get the goods to stations before they run dry. His is another thankless job in keeping the country in a flow state. This is where readers get acquainted with petrol's iridescent sheen and bewitching fumes.

Margonelli also shows that she is at home with statistics and policy issues. What she understands Margonelli spells out in easy language. The mysterious is tufted out with a minimum of mystery.

The second half of Oil on the Brain recounts Margonelli's travels to petrostates Venezuela, Chad, Iran, Nigeria and China where oil has suddenly become very prized. Margonelli details the effects, both good and bad, that impact the citizens of those countries. Margonelli's talks about corruption, environmental disaster and political instability in Chad and Nigeria, a new strongman in Venezuela and extremism in Iran. A Chadian recounts, "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."

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Unfortunately, these chapters seem somewhat at odds with Margonelli's main story. Margonelli's forte in the first section, her ability to flesh out strong characters, deserts her in her foreign travels. She even appears a bit self-absorbed with unnecessary details about her awkward appearance in a big blue dress.

The short final chapter, on China, leaves us longing for more. Margonelli begins by rolling out 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.

Oil on Brain might have benefited if Margonelli had paid more attention to the economics and politics of oil. She makes no mention of the oil-price controls imposed by us President Nixon in August 1971 and their subsequent removal by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Margonelli also overlooks the us Federal Reserve's key role in the world petroleum market. Crude oil is, after all, universally priced in dollars, and the us monetary policy bears directly on the currency's value. There is also little on the current us president's bonhomie with the oil industry.

Margonelli does offer many pleasures to any reader willing to accept her book as a series of articles on petroleum consumption in the early 21st century. What Oil on the Brain fails to offer, however, is either a clear explanation as to how we arrived at this conundrum or a prescription for getting out. Readers looking for either of these will be disappointed.

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