Book Review by Peter Lewis / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-02-09 23:06:10
Digging into Black Gold :
A Wild Ride through the All-powerful Oil Industry, Master of our Economy
Oil on the Brain:
By Lisa Margonelli / Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Reviewed by Peter Lewis / San Francisco Chronicle
(February 4, 2007) — Nine-tenths of a cent. What’s that about? It won’t buy you a piece of penny candy, but it will buy you a gallon of gasoline, along with 200 or 300 more pennies.
It’s called the hidden penny. Not that it’s a penny, since it comes up short, and not that it’s hidden, since something so puzzling is unlikely to escape notice. Yet it is equally unlikely that we give it much thought. That suits the oil companies just fine: Each year, that near-penny adds $1.26 billion to their coffers. That’s a lot of penny candy.
Surprising nuggets such as the hidden penny come by the fistful in “Oil on the Brain,” Lisa Margonelli’s illuminating, entertaining stories of “people who oversee oil’s long journey to our cars.” Starting at her neighborhood filling station, she scurries up the pump like Alice down the rabbit hole, to discover and chronicle the delivery trucks, refineries, drilling rigs, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the oil market and, most tellingly, the voracious consumers, who daily go about changing the world with as much concern as they give that hidden penny.
Simply put, oil rules. It is an indispensable part of our omnivorous diet: meat, vegetables, fruit, grain, nuts, petroleum. Our nation’s infrastructure of roadways and interstates is a result of oil. It fuels our military and our economy. We will go to war over access to it, and our foreign policy will bend to its demands. It keeps us on the go. And, often enough, we are going to the gas station.
In the background are the great energy oligopolies, but the object of our immediate ire, when gasoline prices tick up another dime or quarter, is the filling station. We live by our cars.
When we are denied, as during times of shortage or embargo, our very characters are compromised. “The whole definition of being American was that we drove our cars anywhere we wanted to. Public transit and waiting in line was something communists did,” writes Margonelli, tongue in cheek.
In Margonelli’s colorful profile of her local gas station, the proprietor is to be pitied rather than scorned. For these establishments, gas is more a loss leader than a windfall. The buying and selling of gas has become an alchemist’s art, and if 5 cents is made on a gallon sale, then sing hallelujah. Any significant profits come from impulse buys. Forget the gallon of gas; it’s the gallon of soda that pays the bills, along with sunglasses, candy and salted whatevers.
Margonelli next hitches a high and jouncy ride with a truck driver named Roger 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. He works an absurd number of hours a week.
This is where readers get more closely acquainted with the refined stuff, with gasoline’s iridescent sheen and bewitching fumes.
On to a sulfurous tour of a refinery, the wild wheelings and dealings of the crude market, an outlandish week at a wildcat rig in east Texas — where the epic geologic story of oil comes into focus, with its faults and folds and sedimentation and metamorphosis “as compelling as subplots in Russian literature” — and then a visit to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, our emergency stockpile against the political weather of big oil, which wouldn’t serve national needs for more than a few days but bespeaks how large is our need, how deep our fears and how oil can be used as a political football.
Running through the book, subterranean but ever present, is our preposterous relationship to oil, an institutionalized addiction that discourages strategic change. We feed the rat instead of setting a trap for it.
Today’s petro-states are hazards in themselves: Margonelli’s portraits of Venezuela, Chad, Iran and Nigeria are cases in point. “Lurking within [those countries] were instability, poverty, nationalism, and deep anti-American feelings. The 2001 National Energy Policy, written after secret consultations between Vice President Dick Cheney and oil executives, concluded as much. … Many people interpret it as a virtual declaration of war.” Weapons of mass destruction don’t have to be bombs; oil fits the bill quite nicely.
Oil is our mythic molecule: powerful, violent, charismatic, crudely valuable. It has spawned a culture of warlords, petro-traffickers, pirates, SUVs and 10,000-square-foot homes. It is an outsize story, both hateful and pathetic, and ably drawn by Margonelli.
Still, to end on a positive note, petroleum saved the whales, at least for a while. Whale oil was once the gold standard for indoor lighting, and whales were hunted with abandon. A gusher in Pennsylvania put an end to that, just as it opened a whole new can of slippery worms.
Peter Lewis is a writer on the staff of the American Geographical Society.
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.