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Eco-Libris: Green Books — "Oil on the Brain" by Lisa Margonelli

Editor’s note: Lots of books on oil and its role in US economics and politics coming out these days (imagine that!). Our friends at Eco-Libris have the scoop on yet another one: Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain. This post was originally published on Monday, June 16, 2008.

Oil? Yes, oil! Some of you must have read or heard about peak oil, and wonder what will happen when the wells run dry. Others may shake your fists instinctively at the oil companies, or roll your eyes in amazement and disgust whenever another piece of news about the industry’s long, sad and cruel saga unfolds in yet another third world oil state.

But what does this really mean? How does oil really gets from the oil state to your car’s gas tank? And how do all pieces of the puzzle fit together to create this mess we call (U.S American, suburban) automobile culture?

Enter investigative journalist Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain – Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to your Tank. In the spirit of similar recent “natural histories”, such as Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or its big screen counterpart King Corn, which both telling the complex stories of staple food commodities, Margonelli weaves the complex tale of oil.

What a fun read! So fun I got the local Seattle environmental book club I recently joined to read it at their next meeting! The quirkiness begins in the title, with its tongue-in-cheek play on the old “war on drugs” slogan. The subtitle is yet another blatant (yet apt) California-centric Grateful Dead reference to the famous “what a strange long trip it’s been” line from “Truckin’.” And indeed Margonelli’s strange tale begins at the gas pump in her local independent San Francisco gas station, where she spends a couple of shifts as an observer. Did you know that some independent gas stations make more money selling bottled water and snacks than selling gas? Kind of gives a spin to the irritation at the high prices. That is one of the first tidbits of new information that will help us begin to make sense of the mess we call the oil economy.

The next stop is a day with the gas tanker, and then from the dispatcher and all the way to the Los Angeles refinery and the East Texas oil field. The pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place, and the stories and histories of each segment of the industry are told with an eye for the weird, funny and significant.

The picture that emerges illustrates one aspect of one of Margonelli’s key arguments. While the US maintains an active international policy, treating oil as a strategic resource, it domestically treats oil as yet another commodity. To paraphrase Frank Herbert, the policy is that “the oil must flow” and the results are total reliance of a culture on this unregulated commodity. While oil prices have doubled in recent years, consumption dropped only 4%.

And here’s another key point– oil has hidden costs, always did. Even when it was 97c a gallon, someone was paying the price. Maybe it was a farmer in Texas, when he had to let an oil speculator put a drill in his back yard for measly compensation, because the law favors the drillers, and mineral rights take precedent over the rights of property owners. Maybe these are the communities that sprawled around the refineries, with their ubiquitous burning gas flares, paying with their health, needing health care that everyone else pays for with their taxes.

Margonelli’s travelogue continues internationally, to countries that are producers of oil: Venezuela, Chad, Iran, and Nigeria. Each joined the oil economy as producers at different times and faces different challenges. In each there is a part of the population and economy as a whole that bears the vast “hidden” costs of gas at the pump. The cost of corruption is local poverty, sometimes in the exact places where the oil was found. The community bears the social cost of human rights violations, and the health costs of all sorts of environmental pollution.

But to know all of the above you did not necessarily need to read this book. What makes it unique and different from your run of the mill finger pointing rant are the stories and the people. Like Aresu, a female Iranian journalist who was Margonelli’s sly accomplice in Iran, helping her navigate the bureaucracy and get access to key people to meet and interview, and arranged a rare visit as a woman to a Persian gulf oil rig. Another interesting figure is Herb Richards, the man “who created the business of selling self-serve gasoline in Northern California and much of the west”.

So grab this one for a fun environmental read. Get your book club to discuss it, and check out the official flash website with the funky chart.

Title: Oil on the Brain – Petroleum’s Long Strange Trip to your Tank
Author: Lisa Margonelli
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (original) / Broadway Books (reprint)
Published on: January 2007/ January 2008
Pages: 352
Official Website: http://www.oilonthebrain.com/
Here is also a more recent Lisa Margnoelli article in The Atlantic on recycled steam.

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