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.
Yet when Margonelli arrives in November 2003, Chad seems to be “undeveloping and moving backward.” In N’Djamena, the capital, traffic lights stand dim and useless ( Chad doesn’t produce electricity), generators don’t work, and gas stations lie in ruins. It seems that the best thing oil has brought are the bright, generator-powered security lights outside Exxon’s offices, where children sit on bomb barriers at night to do their homework. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s “controls” have been flouted: The panel of citizens formed to decide how to spend the oil money has been stacked with cronies of President Idriss Déby, and Déby himself has spent his first payment from Exxon on weapons. By the end of 2005, the oil project had surpassed expectations by generating $306 million in revenues, yet Chad, once the tenth-poorest country in the world, had become the fourth-poorest. According to Transparency International, a global watchdog group, it was now tied with Bangladesh as the most corrupt.
Margonelli strikingly conveys the absurdity of the situation in N’Djamena by describing what happens when President Déby comes to town. Suddenly, the streets empty. Stores are locked, cars disappear. “It’s well known that anyone caught peeking from a window may be shot,” Margonelli writes. “How strange to be Idriss Déby,” she muses, “ruler of a poor and chaotic country, and to drive through it completely depopulated, as if a neutron bomb has hit, insisting to the world that you’ve been democratically elected.” It must be stranger still to live under his rule.
Oddly enough, Margonelli finds hope in China, a country whose robust economic growth has earned both the fear of western oil companies and the scorn of environmentalists. At Shanghai’s International Auto City, where Margonelli attends a competition for alternative-fuel and low-emissions vehicles, she learns that the Chinese government wisely views energy efficiency as an opportunity to increase its global competitiveness. Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, GM, and Ford are all showcasing their newest inventions. But Margonelli is most impressed by a little yellow, egg-shaped electric vehicle called “Aspire.” Designed by students from the Wuhan Institute of Technology, its headlights and hood form the shape of a smiley face. This is the car of the future, Margonelli decides: small and slow, but efficient. Never mind that it needs a push to get started. “It has a few problems,” the engineer shouts above the motor’s high-pitched screech. “But it has a happy feeling.”
The same could be said for Oil on the Brain. Just as the Oil Age brought planes, trains, and automobiles, Margonelli concludes, its byproducts—pollution, corruption, and global warming—ought to be solvable with a new set of innovations. Perhaps, but I’m skeptical that today’s drivers are ready to trade their powerful fuel-charged engines for an electric egg—or that today’s world leaders are prepared to convince them they should.
One reason for my skepticism is Nicholas Shaxson. Poisoned Wells, a distillation of Shaxson’s fifteen years of reporting from Africa on the oil business, offers a gloomy view of oil, politics, and the international financial system. Shaxson focuses on Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and São Tomé, Africa’s newest oil producer, and his stories about each of them are equally disturbing, bizarre, often confusing and ultimately dispiriting. In each place, oil—“the corrupting, poisonous substance”—has created an “Alice-in-Wonderland world” of outsized characters directing mysterious underground economies, fueling bitter conflicts, and destroying any hope for ordinary development.
Shaxson tells this history by focusing on a character who is somehow emblematic of each country’s oil-induced turmoil. In Nigeria, for example, there’s Fela Kuti, a James Brown-style musician who “illustrates the indefatigable spirit” of the country. As Nigeria fractures along ethnic lines and an oil boom fuels the conflict, Fela becomes ever more brazen and hedonistic. He’d “strut onstage in his underpants, taunting Nigeria’s elites,” until after one particularly subversive performance, he is dragged out of his compound by his genitals, brutally beaten, and imprisoned. When the oil boom ends, rival factions scramble for the remaining spoils. Fela’s band, too, is torn apart by the excesses of its own success. Finally, Fela dies of aids in 1997, “buried in his tight yellow trousers with a joint between his fingers.”
Fela’s story is “the musical score to accompany the unraveling of a nation,” writes Shaxson. Still, Fela had nothing to do with the oil industry. The story of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubu-Asari, the militant Ijaw leader who threatens the Nigerian government, and whose supporters kidnap oil workers and bunker hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude to fund their resistance, is central. But we don’t get to him until much later.
Shaxson’s chapters on Gabon, a sparsely populated, often overlooked West African oil producer, demonstrate the real contribution of his book: a vivid illustration of how oil-induced corruption, with the help of the “pinstripe infrastructure” of the international banking system, is digging its tentacles deep into the developed world.
Before Shaxson arrived in Gabon in 1997, he knew only that “it was a quiet, oil-rich former French African colony whose people consumed more champagne on average than anyone, including the French,” and whose “diminutive president, Omar Bongo, kept popping up in parts of the world that did not obviously concern him.”
Despite his short stature, President Bongo, Africa’s longest-serving head of state, “towers over the country, unchallenged,” enjoying “secret influence around the globe with a force far, far out of proportion to his country’s tiny population.” That’s because in 1967 Bongo was handpicked for power, at age thirty-two, by France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, who since Gabon’s independence in 1960 had been desperate to retain influence over the former colony.
To entrench that power, de Gaulle created the French oil company Elf Aquitaine, with Gabon as its launching pad. Bongo, as Gabon’s president, consistently granted Elf the best oil licenses on remarkably favorable terms. But it wasn’t until Eva Joly, a French investigating magistrate, started digging into Elf’s connections with Gabon in 1994 that the depths of their relationship came to light.
Despite receiving repeated death threats, Joly unveiled a complex, hidden system of secret offshore accounts that Elf in Gabon had created for funneling cash to French political parties, and through which “tides of corrupt money sluic[ed] around the globe.” Elf’s strategy was to split the paper trail among multiple countries. Without a global police force, it was nearly impossible to track the system. Many countries, meanwhile, eager to attract foreign capital, allowed their largest banks to shroud their clients’ corrupt money “in secrecy.”
In 2003, the former head of Elf was found guilty of misusing over $100 million of company funds. But as Shaxson explains, “the investigations could not tackle the wholesale bribery of African politicians, or Elf’s payments to armed rebel movements, because bribery of foreign officials was not only legal, but tax deductible in France.” (It’s not any more.) Although bribery is illegal in the U.S., it is legal for American banks to accept deposits containing money looted from foreign treasuries. Citibank set up shell corporations for Bongo for years, no questions asked. And in 2005 the U.S. government confirmed that Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., had been accepting hundreds of millions of dollars of highly suspicious money into personal bank accounts controlled by the president of Equatorial Guinea.
Until international rules are developed to eliminate tax havens and prohibit banks from receiving corrupt money, the vast thievery of oil revenues, and the disillusionment with democracy that accompanies it, will persist. The losses are astronomical: untaxed offshore funds make up a third of total global assets, or $11 trillion. That costs governments over $250 billion a year—more than twice what’s spent on foreign aid for all developing countries combined.
That is a reality Margonelli doesn’t address. Although Shaxson, for his part, spends too much time blaming oil itself for Africa’s conflicts, he makes a critical contribution to the growing awareness and understanding of the “resource curse”: that we in the developed world, as oil’s primary consumers and financiers, are at the heart of the problem. It is not a happy feeling.Daphne Eviatar has written about oil and international development for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Fortune, and The Nation.