Oil on the Brain

Oil on the Brain coverI’ve been working my way through Lisa Margonelli’s new book Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the pump to the pipeline and I think it seriously deserves a plug.

It’s written in the style of a Po Bronson essay collection, if you’re familiar with his work. It tackles a big, complex issue the way the best journalism does: through the eyes of the people who deal with it every day. Margonelli tries to explain America’s relationship with oil through a series of magazine-length pieces about people who run gas stations, local fuel distribution centres, refineries, oil derricks, and so on, and the specific places they work. She digs up character after character, all vividly painted, to make her story (which is fundamentally about economics) stay at ground level.

Here’s a passage about Michel Halbouty, son of Lebanese immigrants, one of the great wildcatters of all time, and an energy adviser to generations of Republican presidents, interviewed in his 90s about America’s lack of alternatives to oil:

“I don’t care about me,” he says. “I got everything I want. But this country needs an energy policy or we just gotta take all the oil we can get and say the hell with it.”

“Say the hell with it.” Conjure end times: Houston’s freeways are flat mesas with scattered packs of ragged desperados searching for gasoline. Cold winds blow. But as soon as I exit Halbouty’s reality, it will be 107 degrees outside and the freeways of Houston’s sprawl will be jammed with cars and trucks, as usual, regardless of the hour. The slightly humorous thing about Michel Halbouty’s dystopia is that it already almost exists — in reverse. We have so much energy that we can afford to burn it going nowhere. While the United States embraced the idea of importing oil, we’ve been ambivalent about limiting how much we use. The result is that I’m sitting in Halbouty’s office literally shivering from the cold. Little green phytoplankton souls are screaming.

“People. Don’t. Care,” he says, whacking his chair between words. “As long as they can pull up to the pump and say ‘Fill ‘er up,” they don’t care! Some of the senators from up East are just satisfied with imports. This country has never had an energy policy!”

Halbouty died in November 2004. I have thought of him often since we spoke. Mostly I remember him saying “People. Don’t Care.” He’s right, of course. Nobody frets about energy when it’s cheap. We’re still living in the world of the Black Giant [oil field], an era when controlling excessive oil production is the main problem. We haven’t been forced to come up with a new paradigm. The big question of our time is whether we will change and finally leave the Black Giant behind willingly, or whether we’ll just say “the hell with it” until something happens.

Throughout — or at least as far as I’ve read, which is about halfway — Margonelli’s underlying question is why gasoline costs what it costs, and why we, all of us, behave so irrationally around it. Along the way, she puts paid to myths and conspiracy theories (do oil companies collude on gas prices? “They ain’t got the brains,” says a man who made his life undercutting them while making his fortune in independent self-service gas stations), explains science and geopolitics and economics and, above all, the people who make the system go. And the prose sings.

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