OIL ON THE BRAIN by Lisa Margonelli


Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
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Oil’s unlikely journey from giant rigs in the Persian Gulf to your street-corner gas station.

Americans collectively burn 10,000 gallons of gasoline per second yet spend little time actually thinking about anything other than its increasingly high cost. In this jaunty, informative overview, California-based journalist Margonelli gives us a whirlwind tour of the oil universe. Stops include a refinery on the outskirts of L.A., an experimental car exhibit in Shanghai and the floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, where spot-market traders monitor the world’s oil supply on a minute-to-minute basis. At an independent San Francisco gas station/deli, the Middle Eastern owner decries his uphill struggle against brand-name stations and rampant customer theft. In once-booming East Texas oil country, an aging fourth-generation wildcatter still drills for pockets of natural gas. Traveling to underdeveloped, oil-rich regions like Nigeria, Chad and Venezuela, Margonelli finds that the promise of oil wealth has remained elusive. Petrodollars tend to collect in the hands of a wealthy few while conditions for the poor remain desperate. Along the way, we learn some rather surprising facts. Venezuela’s national oil company, largely controlled by the increasingly anti-American Hugo Chavez, owns eight U.S. refineries and provides gasoline to about 14,000 Citgo stations. All gasoline, no matter the brand name, basically comes from the same distributor tank; only when it’s being loaded into tanker trucks does a proprietary “detergent package” squirted into the fuel make it one brand or another. The daily total of traffic fatalities in China, where the number of autos is expected to double in the next three years, is equivalent to the death toll of a 747 crash. Margonelli is good at uncovering such fascinating tidbits. Unfortunately, she’s less capable of providing a clear view of the overall oil landscape.

A study of the substance around which world history seems to increasingly turn that’s hampered by hectic, rambling prose replete with strained metaphors and some unconvincing theorizing.

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 2007
ISBN: 0-385-51145-0
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2006


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