Oil on the Brain

One thing I like about long flights is that I get caught up on my reading.

I just finished Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain; Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, and it is a marvelous book.

Anyone interested in today’s oil industry (or according to Mary Roach, anyone who drives a car), should read this book.

It’s not an energy book. It’s more of a travel book, which starts in a California gas station, and circles the globe in a search for an explanation of where a gallon of gas comes from.

Margonelli’s writing is magnetic. The reason this book took me so long to read is because I did not want to miss a word.

She is not an energy geek. She a journalist. And she has an incredible knack for bringing the reader into the story. She reflects on the air freshener hanging from the petroleum jobber’s rear view mirror, as she rides along from the rack to various drops.

She is a constant reader of hair styles, from Shanghais to Chad, and she sprinkles her exploration of the origins of oil with little things, like the absence of teeth which makes the Venezuelan activist look “whacky,” or the length of the slit in an Iranian guide’s dress-presumably allowing for a faster gait.

I was lent this book in the Hamptons last summer, and unless I need to return it, it will be an invaluable addition to the library at the Plant. If it needs to be returned (people who fail to return books irk me), then I will buy a copy immediately.

Part Daniel Yergin, part Matt Simmons, Margonelli weaves a miraculous tale, and while she is in the story-she’s not really. She’s the consummate observer, who is ready to admit her own “cluelessness” with aplomb.

The title of the book comes from a ditty she spotted in an oil museum in Pennsylvania, and it is a rotten name for a book. The cover is even worse; causing me to worry about how much market penetration this book has received.

My borrowed copy was a first edition hardbound from Doubleday under the Nan A. Talese imprint, 2007. And I hope it gets traction. It was clearly many years in the writing, and was well researched.

There is no word of biodiesel, or ethanol, or BTUs for that matter, and the last chapter on China is frighteningly close to “the happy chapter,” with hydrogen just around the corner.

But she is not a transportation expert. She’s allowed to marvel about a taxi powered by compressed natural gas. She’s simply curious. And her curiosity takes her through a remarkable exploration of everything from the profit margins of the gas bar on the street to the intricacies of the petrostate.

I loved this book. I read the acknowledgements with sadness as she thanked Mesa Refuge. That’s where I was supposed to be these past couple of weeks. I told my editor at New Society that I could hear waves lapping outside my window and could see the glow of the northern lights from the window of my Holiday Inn in Des Moines.

It turned out to be traffic and the neon sign for Maroney’s downstairs.

But forget that. Margonelli is an optimist, which is what I want to be. She sees oil as an “alternative” fuel that saved the whale from extinction, and she thinks perhaps there is another “whale” waiting to be discovered.

In her epilogue she writes, “Drake’s gusher was in the ground, but the next one may be in our brains. We are used to thinking of energy in terms of reservoirs and coal seams, but the reserves of the future lie elsewhere.”

I love that. It makes me want to get home to the biodiesel plant to get back to work, where we are attempting to change the world with our ideas…

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One Response to Oil on the Brain

  1. Envirostats says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ll have a look into the book. My environmental statistics blog has a more quantitative component to it all if you or any of your readers are ever needing energy statistics (one of the biggest categories) to complement some of the text, or other environmental statistics, for use or just interest. http://envirostats.info

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