Lisa Margonelli first became fascinated with oil while observing an experimental cleanup in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay oil field. The lab was a tank containing sixteen gallons of seawater in which a chemist had made several controlled oil spills. As Margonelli looked on, the chemist tossed napalm on the pancake of spreading crude, the oil ignited, and “the flames began to dance…painfully hot, yet too brutal and fascinating to ignore.” That day, “oil the abstraction died and was reborn as a mythic molecule—powerful, violent, and charismatic—capable of running the world.” That image of oil as exciting and captivating sets the tone for Oil on the Brain, in which Margonelli, a journalist and fellow at the New America Foundation, embarks on a global exploration of the science, economics, and politics of producing this highly coveted commodity.
Oil on the Brain fits comfortably into what has become a popular genre of serious nonfiction: the story of the extraordinary roots of an ordinary ingredient of contemporary life, be it fast food, household trash, or a cotton T-shirt. Oil lends itself well to this approach, and Margonelli’s tale is an upbeat, adventurous one meant to amuse and entertain even as she investigates the complicated processes and sordid byproducts of gasoline production. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Margonelli begins at her local San Francisco gas station, where she is overwhelmed by the vast assortment of corn nuts, Snapples, lottery tickets, and condoms necessary to keep the station afloat. Despite an occasional surplus of detail, Margonelli manages to bring the mundane world of gasoline retail to life through a series of likable characters. There’s Roger, a tanker truck driver, who, in his “mirrored wraparound sunglasses…slightly resembles the truck he drives” and routinely braves potential flaming catastrophe. And Chris, his dispatcher, a tough blonde with a bottle of “Chill Pills” on her desk who “coos and growls” her orders across northern California.
Margonelli aims to keep the journey “fun,” even as she intersperses it with such grim realities as exploding oil spills and carcinogenic exhaust fumes. Yet at times her extraordinary access to the world of Big Oil seems to cloud her critical perspective. Margonelli presents BP’s refinery in Los Angeles, for example, as an efficient, squeaky-clean operation processing 275,000 barrels of crude a day and run by hyper-vigilant professionals already developing ways to store greenhouse gases underground. But the health effects of refinery pollution, Margonelli tells us, are “hard to quantify.” Although studies have found cancer clusters and high levels of benzene, a refinery emission and known carcinogen, in working-class communities near refineries, she quotes an expert in Texas as saying “that’s partly because they are more likely to use mothballs.” In other words, don’t blame the oil companies, blame the wool sweaters. Margonelli doesn’t probe that suspicious assessment.
She next devotes a chapter to her six days on a natural-gas rig in Texas with a cranky old oil engineer named C.D. Roper. Roper “loves” petroleum, even its smell. He’s “happier than a three-nutted tomcat” calculating the layers of rock the drill bit crunches through. But the consequences of his happiness for the people who live near the drilling rig—the loss of their water supply to contamination, for example—are relegated to a single paragraph. To slight the seamy byproducts of gasoline production, and not do any reporting among the people who live in the fetid communities abutting the Gulf Coast’s refineries, seems like a wasted opportunity to reveal some important, if ugly, truths about the oil business.
Margonelli’s travels in Latin America, Africa, and Asia provide a more enlightening—and unsettling—look at the real costs of oil. She assembles a kaleidoscope of ordinary people, government officials, and industry insiders to explain how oil has controlled, and usually doomed, the countries that produce it. Chad, for instance, is host to a risky experiment by ExxonMobil and the World Bank: a $3.7 billion oil field and pipeline stretching from Chad to Cameroon. Designed to follow strict World Bank controls, the project, completed in 2003, was supposed to prove that oil extraction can both supply energy to the oil-hungry Western world and promote growth in underdeveloped nations—something it’s never done in the past.