Book Review: “Oil on the Brain”.

This is everything you never knew about oil but really ought to find out.

I’ve just finished an amazing book.  It’s taken me three months to read this, partly because the information was so astonishing and new that I kept having to put it down and go assimilate what I’ve learned.

The title of this book is “Oil On The Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.”  It’s an investigative journalist’s take on what’s involved with getting gas or diesel or heating oil (and to some extent natural gas) to our fingertips. The author, Lisa Margonelli, is a journalist of the highest caliber: she writes for varied venues such as The Washington Post, Wired, Business 2.0, Discover and Jane.  She has the narrative presence of Bill Bryson and the astonishing access and insight of Tony Horwitz.  In fact, this book reminded me a lot of Tony Horwitz’s amazing book “Baghdad Without A Map”.  It opened up to me an entire world that I never knew a thing about.  And it’s a world that matters to me – a lot – in every day life.

It is NOT a dire series of predictions.  I’ve read “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” by Richard Heinberg and this is much more balanced a survey of what IS, with little prediction of what will be. If Heinberg is talk radio, Margonelli is in-depth magazine article.This is also NOT a political polemic.  In fact, there’s very little opinion offered at all.  If anything is subject to debate at all it would be some of the analysis she brings to bear on situations, but I’m grateful for the insight into things I’d never considered before.

Besides her ability to tie things together into a whole, the other strength in this book lay in her amazing access.  She spent 2003 to 2006 traveling around the world doing in-depth interviews with a variety of subjects and telling their compelling stories with an overall theme of Oil.  Each time she brought up a situation I had no knowledge about (which was pretty much every chapter) I’d go google and read up on it.  She provides twenty pages (full pages – in a small font) of end notes to this book.  It’s a scholarly work.  If she has a political position in the U.S., it doesn’t show.  At one point she references the costs to people in Africa of keeping wildlife free in Alaska, but more as a point that you need to look at ALL the stakeholders, not just some, when making a decision.  She doesn’t make the decisions, she identifies the stakeholders.

And she tells interesting True Life Stories.  She talks about the Black Giant in the 1930’s in Kilgore, Texas and then explains how the mishandling of that gusher lead directly to Venezuela’s Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo founding OPEC.  She went to Venezuela and discusses what it looks like when the government is essentially a subsidiary of the oil company.  She puts Chavez in context – for which I’m intensely grateful.  She can allow someone to be a clown and a despot, savvy and intellectually flawed all at the same time.

She follows up with visits to other oil-producing third world countries and her adventures in Chad and Niger do more to illustrate the woe that befalls people who live lives of external locus of power.  At one point she makes a compelling case why income taxes lead to a self-determining functional democracy.  The intellectual level of this discourse is at the highest level.

She somehow manages to get on Iran’s Salmon Complex Oil Platform and relates the fall-out from the U.S. bombing of Iranian Oil Platforms on April 18, 1988.  She quotes naval historian Craig Symonds as saying it was “one of the most influential naval engagements in the U.S. History, right up there with the Battle of Midway.”  Did you know about that?  I knew Iran had lost 800,000 people in the Iran-Iraq war.  I knew we accidentally shot down an Iranian Airbus in the Persian Gulf later in 1988 (I personally spent the next five years of my life as a defense contractor working on gun-sights for Aegis Class Destroyers to prevent that from ever happening again.)  I just didn’t know we’d come in so explicitly on Iraq’s side, so explicitly against Iran.  Every Iranian knows this.  Why didn’t I?

She goes to the site of the U.S. Strategic Oil Reserves and discusses its economic impact as well as its geology.   She tours inside an oil refinery (on a day with an incident causing injury) and makes gas station deliveries in a tanker truck.  She works overnight in a gas station/mini-mart and spends a day in the trading pit of NYMEX.  She hangs out with guys on a drilling rig and drives a military hydrogen test vehicle (which requires a tow truck) and attends analternative fuel vehicle event in China.

The whole trip to China was illuminating.  The gist of what she found is that they might be ready to leapfrog over gasoline engines straight to alternative fuel cells.  The cities are too polluted, the government is capable of enormous levels of directed compliance, and the infrastructure isn’t already owned by Big Oil.  It’s a compelling case on the theme of why China might be about to eat the U.S. for breakfast.

The blurb on the cover says “If you drive a car, you must read this book, but please not at the same time.”  It’s a good synopsis.  You ought to know this stuff.  As they say in China, “If you pump oil, you have to fight for it.”  (It’s a pun when you say it in Chinese, “pump” and “fight” sound similar.)

I loved her a little bit for how much she didn’t hate oil.  She points out at one point that the discovery of oil saved the whales.  This book is not about climate change or running out of oil or stopping exploiting indigenous populations, although all these subjects get at least a paragraph.  It’s about THINKING about this subject.  How’s it working for us?  Can we do better?  She concludes with a task,

“We need many fuels, not just one.  As we try to move toward energy that is both economically and environmentally sound, we need to question whether the innovations of Oil City – the cars, the corporations, the antitrust laws, the network of roads, the murky relationship between government and industry – are still working to our advantage.  Are they giving us the strategic flexibility we need?”

I recommend this book


Originally published Dec. 6, 2007 at