Thursday, October 2, 2008

Oil on the Brain: From the Pump to the Progressive Reading Series

Lisa Margonelli is the author of Oil on the Brain, the product of “3.5 years of furious travel and writing.” In her book she interviews oil industry folks the world over, uncovering oil’s journey from the ground to the gas pump. She reads next Wednesday, October 8, at the Makeout Room, which may be the last Progressive Reading ever. Ms. Margonelli is currently an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation. We met in her office, a stylish sliver in an old downtown Oakland office building. I made myself at home in a comfy thrift-store variety green upholstered slipper chair. While admiring the maps and books that adorned the walls, she surprised me with a glass of super cold water served in a fancy yard-sale-score emerald green goblet. Our conversation touched on her book as well as termites, Thoreau, There Will Be Blood, and who she might be for Halloween.- Liz Worthy

LW: Oil on the Brain begins with a great fiery scene of you observing an oil clean up experiment in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. What in the greater scheme of things got you to Alaska?

LM: If you tell me I can’t get in somewhere, I really want to get in there. What happened with oil was once I looked into the Prudhoe Bay oil facility I said ‘Oh my God, I want to get in there. Getting access is a powerful emotional drive for me. It’s also what got me into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

I’ve also been really interested in cultural and economic history and how big things affect people’s individual choices and how we are a product of our time and the empires that we’re born into.

And then there’s another little thread and that is that my parents were hippies and moved to Dover-Foxcroft, Maine an hour north of Bangor, to go back to the land. The energy crisis hit in 1973 and we in addition to going back to the land also stopped using oil to heat our house. So we were heating this old farm house with just wood from the woods and we actually had a horse to pull it out. Thoreau said that wood warms you twice – once when you cut it and once when you burn it. But my Dad was like wood warms you thrice. So he had to do Thoreau one better. It’s once when you cut it from the trees, once when you cut it and stack it for the house and then once when you burn it. So we spent an enormous amount of time stacking wood and carrying it into the house . . .. When my parents left the house sometimes my sister and I would actually turn on the oil heat because it was so fun. We’d stand over the heat grates and let our clothes puff up [hearty laugh]. So for me oil had a visceral aspect that it might not for other people where it was more ubiquitous.

LW: In writing the book you wanted to hear stories from the people who oversee oil’s journey to our cars. Who was the most remarkable person you talked to?

LM: I love hanging out with people and watching them do their work and absorbing their world view so I can’t actually choose one person. There were just a lot of different people who were just really compelling. C.D. Roper the Texan is just one obvious person. But there were a lot of other people. . . .As far as bizarre oil characters, definitely Ali Rodriguez Araque from Venezuela, the former guerilla who lives in the woods plotting how to blow up oil facilities and then becomes head of one the world’s largest oil companies and then goes on to start this new oil diplomacy under Chavez as the Foreign Minister. Definitely, that’s the sort of crazy transformation that is afforded by oil.

LW: In your article "Gut Reactions” in September’s Atlantic Monthly you talk about termites and how their digestive enzymes could be borrowed to turn wood, grasses, and paper products into fuel. Can you comment on the feasibility of this as well as how far into the future you think these things might be possible?

LM: In the under 10 year time span we really need to focus on energy efficiency, we need to make our cars and our transit system much much more efficient. It can start with things like eco-driving where you can reduce the amount of gas you use by 15% just by changing the way you drive. Then the next thing would be car pooling or van pooling or not driving your car, followed by much more efficient cars, not necessarily a Prius. In the '80s I had a Toyota Starlet that got 50 miles to the gallon and cars with mileage like that just aren’t for sale in the U.S. anymore and they could be. So we need to really work on reducing the amount of oil that we use. When we switch to another type of energy, say we go to bio-fuels or more into electric cars, we’ll need to be using a lot less fuel. . . .We could reduce the amount of gas we use by 1 or 2% simply by re-timing traffic lights.

Bio-fuels are somewhat promising but what we need are policies that reward the cleanest best bio-fuels, not the ones that pay the biggest political dividends. What we have now is a system of rewarding corn growers for this corn ethanol, but the greenhouse gas improvement is really minimal, like 13% and in some cases it’s equal to using gasoline. It’s not a good ratio. So what we need to do is figure out a pricing scheme for all of these different bio fuels and electric cars so we’re paying closer attention to the impact they have on the environment so that they can compete.

So in the movie There will be Blood what we all took away from it was the greed connected to oil but what you don’t think about is how important the greed was in the oil. It’s productive greed that got us a gas station on every corner and an oil well on every hill in Bakersfield. Because it’s one obsessed person or a couple of obsessed people who can say there’s oil there, I’m going to drill a hole and I’m going to build a pipeline and I’m going to ship it somewhere, and I’m going to sell it. It’s something you can suck out of the ground relatively easily and you could sell it for money. Right now it’s not clear how you make money on a lot of these fuels –if you produce solar power can you sell it to the grid for a fair price, for example, so we need to set things up. Often times when we talk about limiting greenhouse gases we talk about these complex systems, but basically we need to make greed pay off, just, in the place we need it to and then let the crazy smart people go to work. It’s not so much the question of punishing Daniel Day-Louis’s [character] because they’re greedy bastards, it’s a question of setting up a maze so that the Daniel Day-Louis types do what we want them to do.

LW: You recently presented a brief you wrote as part of your fellowship at the New America Foundation called "Energy Security for American Families" where you lay out policy that could help working families reduce their energy costs. Are any of the ideas in the brief represented by any propositions on the ballot this November?

LM: No, that’s an early stage proposal. We’ll work on it with other non-profits and politicians and anyone else who’s interested and then re-release it in something that’s closer to something that can become legislation.

But if I could just back up, the cool thing about working for a think tank, especially this think tank at New America that is non-partisan and interested in big different ideas, is that when you’re a reporter you spend a lot of time looking at bad policies and shrieking outside the system that’s a bad policy, that’s a bad policy, that’s bad, that’s bad! When I was asked to start thinking about what would be a good policy, I had to become a reporter on policy. I actually had to take my reporter skills and apply them to productive use. It’s definitely risky because as a reporter you say I don’t have dog in this fight and now you have to say I have a policy suggestion that has some good points, but inevitably someone else is going to criticize it. You have to stick your neck out because basically all policies have pluses and minuses. There is no perfect thing. . . . as far as the politics of energy go, we need to really push for big changes in policy and we can’t get those big changes done unless we let politicians know they aren’t going to get creamed for telling us the truth.

LW: If you had to be a political candidate for Halloween, who would you be and how would you spend your evening?

LM: [Laughs] Well, I guess I’d have to be Sarah Palin. I’ve actually gotten letters from friends saying I should be her. You know, the thing about Sarah Palin that just blows me away is if you’re a serious Christian and you really believe that your time praying is a red phone to God, why on earth would you spend that time asking for a gas pipeline? There are so many things that are of deeper concern to God and humanity and all of us than a gas pipeline. Commerce and capitalism will take care of a gas pipeline if it makes any sense at all, and even if it doesn’t (laugh). You don’t need God for a gas pipeline. So I guess that’s the thing that really blows me away about this. There’s something where oil just takes a turn right into some weird spiritual hole in American psyche. . . . somehow Sarah Palin praying for the gas pipeline is a little riddle I haven’t quite worked out. How is that okay? And it’s not that I’m anti-pipeline. We all live by pipeline, and pipelines screw up the Earth, there’s no question about it. This is our world. We are pipeline people. But asking God, it just freaks me out.

LW: So you’d spend Halloween dressed as Sarah Palin praying for a pipeline?

LM: Yes. I should do that. That would be fully scary.

LW: The poet Toni Mirosevich read her poem “Pinball” at last year’s Litquake, which grew out of something a friend told her: "I'm lonely when I pump gas." Would you care to comment on that?

LM: The loneliness of pumping gas. That’s really sweet. It’s also really heartbreaking. It’s that weird reality of our lives that you go to the gas station and you stand there for two and a half minutes and you fill your tank and you’re in a little envelope by yourself. The weird thing about it is we try to be really numbers based. So if it’s four cents a gallon cheaper on the other side we do the four point turn, get over there, fill up. We’re really rational about gas but we’re really irrational and emotional while we’re standing at the pump. One researcher told me that apparently if they stick a picture of a croissant above the pump, croissant sales inside the gas station rise by 15%, which is pretty high. Alone at the pump we’re in this strange malleable space where we can be persuaded to buy a croissant. Not only that-- It’s a croissant in a gas station! A donut I can almost see or one of those stupid big strawberry cheesecake muffins or corn nuts of course . . .. filling your tank seems to be one of those moments that doesn’t matter in your life, but actually matters a lot. However much dolphin safe tuna you eat and whether you use corn recyclable implements when you get food to go, or buy local organic produce or whatever-- ultimately, who you are in the world is determined by your foot on the gas pedal. We really are what we pump.~

Lisa Margonelli with her Petro-Pet someone found for her at a yard sale.

Photos by Liz Worthy whose ceramics show about oil, Light Sweet Crude, opens the evening of November 22nd at Ruby’s Clay Studio. Thanks (again) to the folk for being so sweet and so generous.