Oil on the Brain

Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
Jan. 1, 2007

Oil on the Brain is a smart, surprisingly funny account of the oil industry -- the people, economies, and pipelines that bring us petroleum, brilliantly illuminating a world we encounter every day.

Americans buy 10,000 gallons of gasoline a second, without giving it much of a thought. Where does all this gas come from? Lisa Margonelli’s desire to learn took her on a one-hundred thousand mile journey from her local gas station to oil fields half a world away. In search of the truth behind the myths, she wriggled her way into some of the most off-limits places on earth: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the New York Mercantile Exchange’s crude oil market, oil fields from Venezuela, to Texas, to Chad, and even an Iranian oil platform where the United States fought a forgotten one-day battle.

In a story by turns surreal and alarming, Margonelli meets lonely workers on a Texas drilling rig, an oil analyst who almost gave birth on the NYMEX trading floor, Chadian villagers who are said to wander the oil fields in the guise of lions, a Nigerian warlord who changed the world price of oil with a single cell phone call, and Shanghai bureaucrats who dream of creating a new Detroit.

Deftly piecing together the mammoth economy of oil, Margonelli finds a series of stark warning signs for American drivers.

Margonelli spoke at New America about her book and the insights she formed while writing it; video of this event is available here. To learn more about this book -- and see photos, timelines and additional data on the global oil economy -- please go to oilonthebrain.com.


Her approach is quirky but comprehensive, informal but rigorous: Margonelli has a facility with numbers and an easy way with questions of policy, and the narrative passages here, lightly first-person and often funny, help make accessible the facts of our dependence on oil.

BY: Ted Conover, The New York Times

Pundits may sneer that the oil business has been written about ad nauseam. But for all those car drivers who don't know their upstream from their downstream, Oil on the Brain is a fun read that's also thought-provoking.

BY: Steve Weinberg, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The structure of Margonelli's narrative is unexpected, even daring, as she works backward along the demand-supply chain.

BY: Marcia Angell, M.D., former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of The Truth About the Drug Companies

Oil is our mythic molecule: powerful, violent, charismatic, crudely valuable. It has spawned a culture of warlords, petro-traffickers, pirates, SUVs and 10,000-square-foot homes. It is an outsize story, both hateful and pathetic, and ably drawn by Margonelli.

BY: Peter Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle

Oil on the Brain is hugely enjoyable, compulsively readable, and brilliantly reported. I feared reading a book on oil would be akin to being told 'eat your carrots.' But from page one, Lisa Margonelli made oil into brain candy, and kept it so till the end.

BY: Po Bronson

Lisa Margonelli has a rare and precious talent. She has drawn a wonderfully readable portrait of the fascinating and surprisingly little-known human face of Big Oil.

BY: Simon Winchester

Oil on the Brain could be called "The Petro-economy for Dummies"--and especially hardcore dummies like me who insist on being entertained as well as educated. From the corner gas station to the oil fields of Nigeria, there couldn't be a better traveling companion than Margonelli. She's fast, fearless, funny, and a brilliant observer.

BY: Barbara Ehrenreich

Very few people are smart enough to tackle a subject as complicated as world oil, and of those people, I would wager that not one of them could do it with the humor and crackle and delight that Margonelli brings to bear. If you drive a car, you must read this book, but please not at the same time.

BY: Mary Roach, author of Spook and Stiff

Oil on the Brain is an original, open-minded look at a subject about which everyone has an opinion.

BY: Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Filled with rich history, industry anecdotes, and politics, Margonelli's book brings a deeper appreciation of the complicated and often tenuous process that we take for granted every time we fill up our tank.

BY: Booklist