Sunday, June 29, 2008

Oil On The brain, by Lisa Margonelli

This book charts journalist Lisa Margonelli’s investigation into where petrol comes from, how it is made and retailed. Margonelli employs her journalistic skills throughout, investigating from the source rather than reporting from and commenting on established research. This gives Oil On The Brain a refreshing, on the ground perspective.

By investigating things we all take for granted, Margonelli uncovers lots of fascinating little facts and figures about petrol and its manufacture.

We start at the petrol station, then move back to the refinery, the drilling rig, the oil market and then the various sources, countries like Venezuela, Chad, Nigeria, Iran. The last chapter concentrates on China, and its burgeoning economy and ambitious citizenry who have designs on all owning a car for themselves.

There is also a fascinating chapter on America’s strategic petroleum reserve. This is a huge oil reserve that apparently will keep the country going for some two months if there’s a disaster and oil supplies are interrupted.

An interruption in oil supplies would of course be a political problem. A lot of this book is devoted, after all, to the unstable countries that produce the oil, one of the hidden costs behind ‘cheap’ oil. For example, the Iraq war has been conservatively estimated to have costed 3 trillion dollars. That cost is never included in the price of oil.

When you weigh up all of these hidden and unstable costs (and this doesn’t even factor in environmental damage and the health and safety aspects of pollution), you come away thinking that our sophisticated societies are completely bonkers.

Our whole society is built on oil, yet there is so much extraordinary risk behind it all. The thinking in Western societies seems to be that a technological fix, a new source of energy, is simply a given. It’s not an if situation, but a when.

To me this is a question of reality keeping up with fantasy. Most people aren’t interested in where oil comes from, or how petrol is made. The political situation in Nigeria or Chad is not high on our list of priorities. Instead we get angry at rising petrol prices (here in Australia anyway) and demand government to do something, which they can’t.

This is a book that takes a lot of interesting angles. Recommended.

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