Published in 2008 – and written during the eight-year stint of President George W. Bush – Lisa Margonelli’s “Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank” has remained relevant with President Barack Obama at the helm: the planned extension of the Keystone Pipeline, the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and most recently the permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and on the Atlantic Seaboard. Divided into two broad parts, the book first traces movement of oil along the American supply chain, from the oil fields to the drilling rigs, to the refinery, to the distribution channels and the tanker truck drivers, and finally to the gas station owner. Thereafter, Margonelli goes around the world and further up the chain to Venezuela, Chad, Iran, and Nigeria, to the sources of oil and natural gas.
Her thesis is a straightforward one, that Americans have not been able to reduce the amount of oil and gas they use. Americans, she wrote, are left with “government policies that are activist overseas … while adopting a hands-off attitude toward controlling domestic consumption. Ironically, we have ended up with a government more comfortable getting involved in the politics of oil-producing countries than tangling with the politics of encouraging Detroit to make more efficient vehicles at home”. Domestically, politicians know that rising oil prices is anathemic to election prospects, yet now even the effect of rising prices on the demand for oil has reduced. And not only are consumers oblivious to taxpayer-subsidised oil investment in other states, they know little about hidden costs such as pollution, tax breaks, and environmental damage.
Margonelli’s chapters on the Middle Eastern countries and the petro-states is consistent with expositions in other books too: of extractive economic and political institutions (Chad), of predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain (Nigeria, Venezuela), and of the effects of the Iran-Iraq War (Iran). A lesson from the American occupation of Iraq, for instance, “is that ensuring the flow of oil through violence is a losing proposition because oil facilities are difficult to defend, and stolen oil stokes the opposition”. Oil companies are definitely complicit in these arrangements, but at times governments “are more comfortable using oil companies as foils than getting involved in the [business of making real change]”.
Across these chapters, her writing is witty, even though she does get carried away with cultural or personal references, and also at times with the more technical explanations. Within each chapter, narratives are divided into sections which read like news articles or field reports, based on a mix of interview stories and site visits. After all, she “wanted to hear stories from the people who oversee oil’s long journey to our cars”, and ideally these stories should therefore translate into greater cognisance of “a long chain of relationships stretching across the globe”. When writing about Iran, in particular, she uses Operation Praying Mantis – an attack by American forces in retaliation for Iranian mining of the Persian Gulf – to anchor the different stories of an American soldier, an Iranian oil rig worker, and of geopolitics.
“Oil on the Brain” ends with a note of optimism, in China, of all countries. Pollution and environmental degradation are both persistent and visible challenges, though perhaps they could also be lending to a sense of urgency, accelerating investments in renewable forms of energy and energy-efficient technologies. There has been progress in the United States – despite political and popular resistance – under Mr. Obama, and if Mr. Trump goes the other direction, China would very well take the lead – if it has not done so already.