Utility Exploration Center speaker has ‘oil on the brain’

Journalist Lisa Margonelli will discuss real cost of gasoline during First Friday lecture
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
-A +A

A decade ago, Lisa Margonelli obtained an invitation to Saddam Hussein’s birthday party.

The journalist would write about this party for now-defunct Jane magazine. Hussein didn’t attend and the event was more of a massive community celebration for Iraq’s leader.

“I never imagined what it was like to be in an oil state,” Margonelli said, reflecting on the experience. “Wow, this is so nuts.”

She met oil smugglers and saw how petroleum shapes the daily lives of Iraqi citizens. To gauge the devotion to Hussein, she counted the number of his portraits hanging on walls around her — there were fewer at the bazaar where he was less popular.

“What a strange world oil enables in an oil-producing country,” she said.

A few months later, she traveled to a village in northern Alaska, which had mobilized against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These residents told her about the impact drilling would have on their lives.

“Whenever I read about oil, I predicted what it would say — oil is good for the economy or it’s bad for the environment," Margonelli said. "But there are people all along this supply chain. I wanted to be open-minded and in an open-ended way see what this looks like to people. That’s what I did.”

Her 2007 book, “Oil on the Brain: Adventures From the Pump to the Pipeline,” examines the energy economy and the real cost of gasoline.

She will discuss these issues and how to avoid the American energy trap during her presentation, “Oil on the Brain: Reckoning with the Real Cost of Gasoline,” during the First Friday lecture series April 1 at Roseville Utility Exploration Center.

“The lecture will look at how the cost of oil exceeds what we see on the sign at the gas station” said Margonelli, who serves as director of the New America Foundation Energy Policy Initiative.

It’s a timely topic considering the rising cost of gas and the fact that Americans consume 10,000 gallons of gasoline every second — about 3 gallons per person per day.

“Last year when we invited Ms. Margonelli to speak at our lecture series, we had no idea that gas prices would once again be heading up towards $5 per gallon,” said center Director Bob Garrison. “It’s a great time to learn how oil prices are set and what we can do as consumers to cut the demand and ultimately price of oil.”

To research her book, Margonelli followed the oil-supply chain, starting at a gas station in San Francisco. She visited this spot from 2003-06, during which time the cost of gas changed dramatically, going from $1.61 per gallon to $3.21 a gallon.

Then, she hung out with truck drivers, spent time at a refinery in Los Angeles and on a gas-drilling rig in Texas. She visited the New York Mercantile Exchange where oil is traded. She ventured to Venezuela to understand the other end of the pipeline, and the economical, environmental and psychological aspects of living in a place “where the biggest purpose is to sell oil to the United States,” Margonelli said.

She traveled to Chad and Nigeria where rebel groups disrupt the flow of oil, and Iran where the military protects the country’s oil reserves. Her journey ended in China where engineers are developing efficient cars and alternative fuels.

Throughout her journey, she discovered all the costs Americans don’t consider when filling up our tanks — health care fees as a result of pollution, subsidies to oil companies, military presence in the Middle East, environmental costs of oil development and social costs of petro-states.

Americans will spend $42 billion to fill up their tanks in March, Margonelli said.

“That’s an enormous amount of money that just gets sucked out of our economy and taken out of our pockets,” she said. “(But) we don’t have that many options. People will spend less money on groceries, less on health care, which they may need, and less on education, which could be their children’s. And that ends up costing us down the road.”

During Margonelli’s presentation, she will talk about ways to change our relationship to oil, reduce our dependency, find more transportation alternatives and build a more sustainable future.

“We look at this as a negative thing,” Margonelli said. “But in some ways it’s a huge opportunity.”

Sena Christian can be reached at


First Friday lecture series

When: 7-9 p.m. Friday, April 1

Where: Utility Exploration Center, 1501 Pleasant Grove Blvd. in Roseville

Cost: $9 for students, Placer Nature Center members and Roseville residents, $12 for general public. Season pass is $40 for PNC members, students and residents and $54 for general public

Info: Call (916) 746-1550. Purchase tickets at the door or online at Check out Lisa Margonelli’s website at