Slick Read

An insider’s journey through the oil industry, from the wells to your wallet.

Oil on the Brain

By Lisa Margonelli
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, February 2007
336 pp., $26


If talk about the world’s finite supply of oil could be used as fuel, there might not be an energy crisis. But for all the ink that has been spilled recently–on OPEC, price gouging, dwindling supplies, and environmental impact–one complicated question is typically left unanswered: How does this vast and volatile industry really work?

In Oil on the Brain, veteran journalist Lisa Margonelli adds something fresh to the discussion by eschewing the popular (but dreary) doomsday angle in favor of an “adventures in …” approach. She trots around the globe–starting with the corner gas stations Americans visit 16 billion times a year–and works backward, taking advantage of her extraordinary access to such places as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the oil fields of U.S. foes Iran and Venezuela. Along the way, she discovers an industry wracked with internal conflict–both terrified of and desperate for change.

Her chummy exchanges with characters deep inside the industry reveal the costs and global scale of past mistakes and future hopes. When she visits a BP refinery in California and a generator goes down that day, refinery workers’ union rep Dave Campbell jokes, “Working in a refinery is 2,793 hours of ass time in front of a computer and 30 minutes of sheer terror.” In Nigeria, where oil accounts for 80% of the national budget, she visits remote villages where water pumps and schools built years ago by Shell are now crumbling back to earth. “It’s like a snail,” one native says. “They’ve taken the flesh and left the shell.”

As Margonelli notes, “it’s ideas, not oil, that will drive us into the future,” so her final destination is China, where she surveys the country’s efforts to develop alternative-fuel cars. “Our theorists believe China has an advantage with fuel cells because it has no infrastructure and no resistance,” says GM China VP David Chen. “It’s been cut off from the world for 30 years. It may be a unique situation to leapfrog.” By giving voice to the people who are the links in the global oil chain, Margonelli invites us to leapfrog all the rhetoric, dry statistics, and dire pronouncements about oil in order to truly understand it.