By Lisa Margonelli, Doubleday, 325 pages, $26
The first gas station in the United States opened exactly 100 years ago. Since then, gas stations have become so commonplace around urban Columbia, rural Boone County and everywhere else that they seem nearly invisible.
By 1920, about 15,000 gas stations existed. By 1930, about 124,000 operated along roads cutting through previously virgin land. Inevitably, some of them closed because their locations no longer made business sense.
Lisa Margonelli has been paying close attention to gas stations because that is what obsessive authors do—notice details about their subjects that go unremarked-upon by civilians.
Margonelli, based in Oakland, Calif., decided she would travel the nation and the globe “to hear stories from the people who oversee oil’s long journey to our cars.” She wanted to understand oil in a deeper manner than the fluctuating price of its derivative, gasoline, at the service station pump.
The structure of Margonelli’s narrative is unexpected, even daring, as she works backward along the demand-supply chain. She starts the book at the service station pump, because it is the most familiar manifestation to the largest number of readers. Then she tackles the distribution, refining and drilling, in that order.
Throughout the book, Margonelli foreshadows mystery, as she informs readers in the introduction that at the gas station, a seemingly familiar and uncomplicated site, “nothing was as I expected. The one thing I thought I had a handle on—the price of gasoline, which is updated frequently and displayed prominently on large signs—turned out to be a chimera, albeit a fascinating one that reveals much about the behavior of American gasoline consumers and our role in the world.”
While oil never leaves center stage, Margonelli does a masterful job of humanizing its passage from underground to pump handle. The manager of a San Francisco gas station, identified as B.J., is unforgettable as he appears drowsy but actually sees everything that is going on. The alertness is necessary, given customers who might shoplift the non-gasoline convenience store items that pay the bills because the profit margin is much higher than on a gallon of gasoline.
Even more unforgettable than B.J. is the owner of the gas station, Michael Gharib. He must make snap decisions every day, sometimes hour by hour, about whether to purchase his next shipment of gasoline from a certain refinery, from a certain wholesaler, or from nobody right now in case the price offered drops a few minutes later.
By the time Margonelli finished locating and interviewing the fascinating characters, she had traveled about 100,000 miles over a three-year span, burning about 3,000 gallons of fuel in the process.
She realized after traveling how the price at the pump tells an interesting story but also obscures a great deal. Margonelli thinks of the price, a mere number, as concealing a general story and lots of specific stories. The general story reads like this:
As the rate of demand has grown faster than supply, risks and prices have risen, while the “balance of power in the oil market has shifted.”
As for the specific stories, Margonelli tells them by the hundreds, each suffused with individual drama. They all lead to one conclusion: The environment of earth is going to deteriorate further and lots of people are going to suffer more than ever before unless oil is consumed responsibly. v
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, where an abandoned gas station greets visitors entering downtown from the west.