View Full Version : A tankful of gas, a world full of trouble

18 March 2007, 12:32 AM
It's a long read, but a good one

By Paul Salopek
Tribune correspondent

July 29, 2006

Chapter 1: The pay zone

Last summer, a new gasoline station opened in South Elgin, an old
farming village on the Fox River that's now being swallowed by the westward
sprawl of Chicago.

As service stations go, it's an alpha establishment. A $3 million
Marathon outlet with 24 digital pumps, a computerized carwash, a Goodfella's
sandwich shop and a convenience store lit up like an operating room, it
sells everything from ultra low sulfur diesel to herbal "memory
enhancer" to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Infrared sensors activate the faucets in
its immaculate, white-tiled bathrooms. The coffee kiosk's floor is real

Howard Dunbar's Tanker Truck 6 rolled into the station one chilly night
last September. An amiable ex-cop, Dunbar drives for an independent
fuel hauler. At 9:25 p.m., he stepped down from the cab, set out the
safety cones, hooked up his hoses with a reassuring click, and then
proceeded to unload 7,723 gallons of gasoline and diesel into the station's
underground tanks.

It took Dunbar 29 minutes to empty his swimming pool-size cargo--a
workaday chore that reveals the triumphs of our motorized civilization but
also the seeds of its possible end.

The diesel streaked past a tiny glass porthole on the truck's hoses in
a smear of pale yellow, like beer, while the premium unleaded ran
colorless as vodka. That particular night, according to one industry method
of calculating the explosive energy locked away in crude oil, Dunbar
dumped the liquid equivalent of 19.2 million hours of physical labor into
the Marathon's storage tanks--or the power of a slave army of 2,200 men
working around the clock for a year. This bonanza would be sucked dry
by customers in 24 hours, a small, stark example of the nation's awesome
petroleum appetite at a time when the planet appears to be lurching
into an energy crunch of historic proportions.

By now, most Americans realize that something is profoundly awry in the
global oil patch.

For the majority of motorists, like the "swipe and go" customers at the
South Elgin Marathon, the evidence is painfully obvious: record-high
fuel costs that have surpassed last year's infamous price spikes
following Hurricane Katrina.

Yet to truly grasp the scope of the crisis looming before them,
Americans must retrace their seemingly ordinary tankful of gasoline back to
its shadowy sources. This is, in effect, a journey into the heart of
America's vast and troubled oil dependency. And what it exposes is a
globe-spanning energy network that today is so fragile, so beholden to
hostile powers and so clearly unsustainable, that our car-centered lifestyle
seems more at risk than ever.

"I truly think we're at one of those turning points where the future's
looking so ugly nobody wants to face it," said Matthew Simmons, an
energy investment banker in Houston who has advised the Bush administration
on oil policy. "We're not talking some temporary Arab embargo anymore.
We're not talking your father's energy crisis."

What Simmons and many other experts are talking about is a bleak new
collision between geology and geopolitics.

Below ground, the biggest worry is "peak oil"--the notion that the
world's total petroleum endowment is approaching the half-empty mark, a
geological tipping point beyond which no amount of extra pumping will
revive fading oil fields. Peak oil theory is controversial. Many think it
alarmist. Yet even Big Oil is starting to gird itself for possible fuel
shortages: Chevron, the nation's second-largest oil company, has
bluntly declared that "the era of easy oil is over" and is warning
energy-hungry Americans that "the world consumes two barrels of oil for every
barrel discovered."

Aboveground, things look little better. Most of the world's
petro-states, aware that crude supplies are growing increasingly valuable, have
limited drilling rights to their own oil companies.

In the meantime, humanity's thirst for petroleum continues to run wild.
Producing nations are pumping at maximum capacity. Yet the competing
energy demands of America and rapidly industrializing China and India now
threaten to outstrip global oil output. China has displaced Japan as
the No. 2 oil importer, after the United States. Chinese oil imports are
projected to double to 14 million barrels a day over the next 20 years.
Many credible analysts foresee a new "energy cold war" as the U.S. and
China square off over the planet's last reserves.

The new Marathon station at Illinois Highway 25 and Middle Street in
South Elgin turned out to be an ideal laboratory to parse these sobering

A typical canopy-and-box structure, the station helps feed Chicago's
explosive growth westward, into the exurban boomtowns where McMansions
hit the corn. It sits at a stoplight some 40 miles from downtown Chicago.
A gravel quarry operates across the street. Nearby, an old game farm
once extolled by Ernest Hemingway has vanished under golf courses and
shopping malls.

Most important of all, exclusive access to industry refining data made
it possible, for the first time ever, to track the oil consumed by this
one gas station back to the dusty war zones, belligerent autocracies
and tottering nation-states where it came from.

For years, oil companies have insisted that this could never be done.
Conventional wisdom holds that America's colossal oil flows get mixed
together, swapped among companies and rebranded too many times to
pinpoint the actual source of your $40 purchase of unleaded. The industry has
encouraged this belief for years, partly to avoid boycotts.

Yet with a little research, and proprietary data supplied by the
Marathon Petroleum Co., the Tribune could trace with unparalleled clarity
virtually every bucketful of trucker Howard Dunbar's shipment back to its
distant origins.

On the hydrocarbon menu that September night, in round figures:

Gulf of Mexico crudes--31 percent

Texas crudes--28 percent

Nigerian crudes--17 percent

Arab Light from Saudi Arabia--10 percent

Louisiana Sweet--8 percent

Illinois Basin Light--4 percent

Cabinda crude from Angola--3 percent

N'Kossa crude from the Republic of Congo--.01 percent

For a span of five months, from September through February, other fuel
shipments to the station were analyzed for their crude composition.
Molecules swirled through the South Elgin Marathon's gas pumps from
Nigeria, Iraq and Venezuela, as well as from declining oil fields in the
United States.

Taken together, they revealed the immense human costs, the boggling
technical investments, the hardball politics, the hidden exploitation and,
ultimately, the alarming fragility of America's epic oil addiction--as
seen through the prism of a local gas station. U.S. consumers and
faraway producers were finally tethered, without resorting to metaphor or
guesswork, by a clear oil trail.

Thus, $73.81 worth of unleaded pumped one Saturday afternoon by a
Little League mom was traced not simply back to Africa, but to a particular
set of offshore fields in Nigeria through which Ibibio villagers canoed
home to children dying of curable diseases.

Every day, the jaded tanker drivers brought human stories echoing in
their trucks. They plunked their long wooden measuring sticks into the
Marathon station's 40,000-gallon underground tanks, and the resulting
subterranean gong evoked--depending on the changing oil vintage--an Iraqi
ex-colonel's cavernous loneliness. Or the laments of a West African
fisherman named Sunday, afloat on a fishless stretch of the Atlantic. Or
the songs of Marxist Indians reveling in their newfound oil wealth atop
a dusty South American plateau.

The voices of Chinese oil prospectors gurgled inside all of the fuel
shipments. And diluted in the gas came a warning that many Americans seem
unprepared to hear: Our nation's energy-intensive joy ride, powered by
150 years of cheap petroleum, may finally be coming to an end. This
could be as good as it gets.

"We're almost done," said Dunbar, the trucker, on that first night. He
is a busy man. He worked without complaint in a thin T-shirt stenciled
"Beverly Hills Polo Club." A cold prairie wind shot across the Marathon
parking lot, needling the bones.

He carried his invoice into the convenience store. The night clerk, a
scrappy young woman named Kelly Hanson, stood behind the register, ready
to parry the night's oddballs and hard cases, the cops and strippers,
the heads who wandered in asking where to buy dope.

"Hello darlin'," Hanson said grandly. Dunbar grinned. When he left at
10:10 p.m. the Marathon stood empty, glowing under its glacial white
floodlights. In the darkness beyond stretched the hungry energy maw of the
Midwest--a naked cornfield, silent Highway 25 and the indistinct shapes
of new tract homes.

This is how it begins, our travelogue of addiction.


`Did that Nissan pay at 19?" Marta Perez, the morning-shift clerk,
asked as she peered out at the pumps from behind her register.

"He didn't pay me," said her colleague Anthony Ratajczyk.

Ratajczyk has the rubbery face of an old boxer, which is what he is.
His nose has been broken nine times.

"Well he didn't pay me either," Perez muttered. "Michelle! We got
another drive-off!"

It was September. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had delivered their
one-two punch to the energy-rich Gulf Coast, swamping New Orleans and
disabling the offshore wells and pipelines that yield a third of America's
domestic energy production. In South Elgin, population 20,000, gas prices
at the Marathon had broken the $3-a-gallon barrier. And the Bubbas and
Barbies--industry lingo for the working-class men and white-collar
commuters who keep convenience stores solvent--were misbehaving. They were
stealing Michelle Vargo's gasoline.

"You'd think it would only be the crummy cars, but people in nice cars
are doing it too," exclaimed Vargo, the frazzled station manager. "I
never seen anything like it."

Vargo, 36, is too young to recall that this had happened before, during
the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.

Nor did she and her small band of employees appear to fully grasp the
ominous economic and political forces churning around their local gas
station. Few Americans do.

In typically murky industry fashion, the station is branded and
supplied by Marathon but actually owned by an independent fuel retailer--in
this case, Prairie State Enterprises of Barrington. Freelance shippers
called "jobbers" haul the gas. And even though much of the station's
petroleum does in fact bubble from Marathon's own oil patches, the company
as often purchases its oil from Exxon Mobil, Iraq's Southern Oil Co. or
Venezuela's PDVSA, a swaggering national oil company with its own
patriotic song.

If the South Elgin Marathon ever inspires an anthem, it would be
dedicated to Vargo.

Many of America's gas stations are matriarchies. The owners simply
trust women managers more. Vargo's loyalty and work ethic showed why.

A single mom with a hard-edged life, she is a dynamo with hair permed
into stringy curls like fusilli pasta. She walks with the stoop of the
continually put-upon. In a ruthless business that actually earns a
pittance from gasoline sales (oil companies and refiners snatch the bulk of
the fuel's profits long before it reaches the pumps), she struggles to
stay afloat. Her station's income comes from the incidentals of frantic
modern life: cigarettes, energy drinks, stay-awake pills, the Lotto,
and sweet and salty snacks. Her workers love her.

"If Michelle leaves, I leave," declared morning clerk Perez, 34,
another single mother who moonlights tending bar at a local pub where she is
known as "Shorty." "At $7.75 an hour? You gotta be kidding. She's the
only reason I stay."

The clerks are a motley group clad in vests made of blue polyester,
itself a petroleum product. Many are the working poor. Some can't pay
their bills. Several still live with their parents. The night maintenance
man, Dwayne Graff, lives in a trailer and always seems one small
misfortune away from homelessness. Vargo advanced him $20 over the weekends
out of her own purse. She gave them all second chances and sometimes
third chances.

During the days of post-Katrina gas banditry, Vargo deployed her troops
shrewdly, with a platoon sergeant's care. She bought a cheap pair of
binoculars to log license plates. She ordered Perez to park her rusty
Mazda at pump 19, to block the station's quickest escape route. Then fuel
allocations kicked in for a week--many gas stations were limited to one
tanker delivery a day--and Vargo's voice hoarsened from stress and

"The worst, the absolute worst, thing that can happen is to run out of
gas," she groaned in her closet-size office behind the pizza oven. "The
customers will never come back."

The gas station phone rang. It was her son in juvenile hall. Could he
come back home and stay with her?

"No," she said calmly, and hung up.

Vargo drives to work in a car she can't afford. It is a white Chevrolet
Suburban that churns out a ruinous 10 miles to a gallon and rides so
high off the street she has to boost herself into the driver's seat as if
jumping into a saddle. Her two-hour daily commute, about 40 miles each
way from Lockport, roughly double the national average. Still, there
are times when the extravagant vehicle seems the only reliable part of
her unsettled life.

"I don't feel safe in small cars," Vargo said defensively, refueling
one day at the pump.

She seemed worn and jittery. It was the end of an 11-hour shift. She
was headed home to a house shared with two teen daughters and a 4-foot
iguana--a place she would soon vacate because she couldn't make the rent.

The only perk for the station employees is free coffee. There are no
discounts on gas. Vargo bought $40 of regular unleaded. She rubbed the
heel of one hand tiredly into her eye sockets. With the other, clutching
the pump nozzle, she touched a faraway sea.


In 1940, the United States was the Saudi Arabia of the world. It
produced 63 percent of the planet's oil. Today, after years of frenzied
pumping, it generates 8 percent.

About a third of Vargo's fill-up that day came from the last major pool
of crude remaining in oil-starved America: the basement of the Gulf of
Mexico. Trace it from seabed to suburbia, and you X-ray America's aging
industrial innards.

It started 9,000 feet inside the crust of the Earth, in Miocene Epoch
rocks that have the consistency of oil-soaked beach sand. The rocks
simmer near the boiling point of water. This is known in the business as
the "pay zone."

From that hellish place, the crude was sucked up into a 4-inch drill
pipe that punctured the Atlantic floor near a submerged hillock called
Viosca Knoll 786. It shot up 1,750 feet of pipe to an offshore production
rig and got shunted ashore to a huge tank farm in St. James, La. There
it began its long journey to the Midwest in a pipeline big enough for a
person to walk in, albeit hunched over--a 632-mile-long artifact of our
oil dependency that will doubtless astound future archeologists.

Arriving at the Robinson refinery in southern Illinois, it got cooked
and cooled for five days inside 23-story towers monitored by hard-hatted
engineers who pedal around the facility on bicycles. Then it gushed
through 16- and 12-inch fuel pipelines for three days until it reached a
40-year-old tank farm near O'Hare International Airport. Finally, it
traveled its last 12 miles to the South Elgin Marathon inside Howard
Dunbar's truck. Whenever Dunbar braked at stoplights, the shipment sloshed
tidally forward.

The enormous cost of this elaborate capillary system, built over
generations, helps cement our reliance on hydrocarbons.

"Takes a bit of power to bring it up," hollered Ferrell Martin, 52, a
senior mechanic aboard Petronius, a drilling platform that juts above
the gulf's waves near Viosca Knoll. "Our generators could electrify a
small town."

The platform, co-owned by Chevron and Marathon, came on line in 2000.
It cost more than $500 million to build, nearly what the United States
shells out every 24 hours to buy imported crude. A masterpiece of high
technology, it pumps the energy equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil and
natural gas a day--a gusher that matches Pakistan's national output and
is only slightly behind Italy's.

Petronius is gigantic, almost beyond imagining. If the steel-legged
platform were the 110-floor Sears Tower, the ocean's bed would muddy the
lobby, and the sea's surface would lap at the antennas. Go 40 feet
higher, and you would finally reach Martin's workplace--a swaying 10-story
cube of valves, piping, generators and windowless crew quarters
inhabited by about 90 men. Clad in blue Chevron overalls, they lean into one
another as if passing on secrets; they're shouting into each other's
faces to be heard over the howl of machinery.

Under the mistaken impression that they were crowning this technical
wonder with a grand name, Chevron executives christened the rig after an
infamous debauchee of Roman Emperor Nero's court. Regardless, Petronius
is impressive. It is a fitting monument to America's empire of oil.

More than 100 such gargantuan structures dot the gulf. As do an
estimated 6,500 other oil-related features such as wells, pumping stations and
helipads, not to mention some 30,000 miles of submerged pipelines
tangled like spaghetti across the gulf floor. On any given day, swarms of
oil company helicopters mutter through the gauzy marine air. Armadas of
supply boats chalk the lime-peel-green ocean surface. On the horizon,
gas flares burn palely.

This is Martin's strange, metallic, largely womanless world. Almost
certainly, it is also America's last great oil rush.

"The future is here," said Martin, a big, friendly Cajun with a nose
like a hatchet. "The onshore fields are fading."


One man who keeps Michelle Vargo's gas-guzzling Suburban rolling
doesn't have an oil worker's rough hands. He sits in a red granite skyscraper
in Houston and speaks in what sound like Zen koans: "the topography of
sound," "sand is silent" and "the trick is not to know when to believe
your data, but to know when not to believe it."

Jeff Rutledge, a senior geophysicist for Marathon, was making a point
about the increasingly difficult search for the world's last accessible
pockets of conventional crude.

"No question, we're facing a whole new game," said Rutledge, a
sandy-haired New Orleans native. "Sure, there's a lot of resources still out
there, but they're getting riskier to invest in, much harder to find and
more expensive to reach."

The quest for oil is tireless, exhaustive, obsessive--and if Marathon's
technology and exploration department is anything to judge by, highly
eccentric. Brainy geologists use their office windows for blackboards,
scrawling equations on the glass with felt-tipped pens. Others wear
strange goggles in a small, theater-like room, peering up in silence at 3-D
chunks of the Earth's crust. Desks are piled with what look like old
eight-track tapes: computer drives that contain volumes of exploration
data that beggar belief. Seismic surveys, the industry's main tool for
locating oil, involve setting off small shock waves at the Earth's
surface and recording millions of "echoes" from the rock below.

"One typical seismic project contains about the same amount of data as
your DNA code," Rutledge said. "Two or three surveys together contain
the equivalent of all the information available on the Internet today."

Progress reports from 10 to 20 of these fantastically pricey, high-tech
quests from Africa, Russia and the North Atlantic land on Rutledge's
desk every day.

According to industry optimists, such herculean efforts to squeeze out
Earth's last high-quality oil are the best retort to doomsayers who
worry that the world is running on empty.

Out in the gulf, for instance, Petronius' 19 wells do things engineers
couldn't dream of a quarter-century ago. They snake downward through
almost 1,800 feet of seawater, bore vertically through a mile and a half
of rock, and then veer off laterally under the stony seabed for
distances of up to 5 miles. This is the oil-patch equivalent of drawing blood
from a hidden vein--with a hypodermic needle 180 feet long.

Such whiz-bang technology has encouraged the U.S. Minerals Management
Service to boost the Gulf of Mexico's potential oil reserves by 15
percent, to 86 billion barrels. That's enough, in theory, to meet U.S.
demand for another decade. Much of that, however, lies in deep,
environmentally sensitive waters near the Florida coast and is prohibitively
expensive to extract using current technology.

"Cost aside, we don't see any immediate shortage in the resource at the
global level," said Bob Greco, an exploration analyst with the American
Petroleum Institute, the industry lobbying group. "Innovation will keep
pushing the envelope of what's recoverable."

Many oil executives also insist that much of today's oil woes are
actually man-made: Environmental restrictions and stingy foreign governments
keep valuable reserves locked up.

Skeptics, however, dismiss this as mere wishful thinking--a
"cornucopian" belief that, somewhere, somehow, nature will still bail humans out.

The United States gulps a quarter of the crude pumped on the planet,
industry critics point out, yet it sits atop just 3 percent of the
globe's reserves. No amount of new drilling will change this. The awesome and
costly platforms that stride ever-deeper into gulf waters are symbols
of a junkie's desperation, they say, not hope.

"You can drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on every
continental shelf and atop every hill in America for that matter, and you
still won't reverse the fact that our oil production is in permanent
decline," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the House
Science Committee. "We're just sopping up what's left, digging ourselves
into a deeper hole."

Bartlett belongs to a small but suddenly influential band of pessimists
who are ringing alarm bells over peak oil.

The theory of peak oil is based on the studies of M. King Hubbert, a
pioneering U.S. geologist who correctly predicted in the 1950s that
America's huge crude output would "peak," or hit a ceiling, in 1970. Nobody
disputes that the phenomenon is real. The output of all oil reservoirs
begins to decline after about half of their oil is extracted. Today,
peakists cite anemic oil discoveries since the 1980s, plus ominous
drop-offs in production in major fields in Kuwait, China and Mexico, among
other places, as evidence that the world, too, is reaching its fateful

Estimates of when we will hit this milestone vary from "we've passed it
already" to the U.S. Geological Survey's latest calculation of
2044--hardly a reassuring date, given that rocketing oil prices and their
attendant social chaos would stagger the industrial world well before that

In the beige corridors of Marathon's Houston skyscraper, certain
absences hinted at the waning age of cheap, easily tapped crude oil. Because
of the high costs and diminishing returns of modern exploration
efforts, Rutledge said, Marathon's technology and exploration staff has
shrunk. Much of the exploration work is farmed out. Also, oil discoveries are
getting smaller; hardly the giant "elephant" finds of bygone eras, most
are like elusive rabbits.

Rutledge gazed out his window at the overcast city below. Small homes
in the neighborhood were being torn down and replaced by hulking trophy

Using available technology, he said, Petronius' bounty likely will
shrivel in 12 to 15 years.


Michelle Vargo was off duty. She slumped at La Fuente bar in suburban
Lockport, nursing a beer and staring hard at her South Elgin Marathon
paycheck: $1,049.31 for two weeks' labor.

"This is impossible," she said. "I'm spending a third of my take-home
on gas."

At her elbow sat Roy Draino, 42, Vargo's boyfriend. He is a man
prematurely wizened, like a boiled-down version of some larger self, and he
wants Vargo to quit the gas station.

"She comes home and can't relax," he said. "Last night they called her
eight times--eight times--over some goddamned drive-off. It ain't worth

Vargo's whole life, it seems, is bound up with burning petroleum. Her
father was a long-haul trucker who was frequently gone. Before working
at the Marathon, she had managed three gas stations for Phillips. And
even her hard-bitten beau is in the business.

Draino scrubs oil refinery furnaces for a living. The work is
undependable. U.S. refineries have dwindled from more than 300 to just 145 over
the last 25 years. Industry blames this perilous bottleneck in the
nation's gasoline production on environmental red tape and public
opposition to new oil infrastructure--BANANA they call it, Build Absolutely
Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody. But critics claim that Big Oil actually
likes the status quo; the inevitable shortfalls drive up gas prices.

Vargo's cell phone rang. This time it was her ex-husband calling. He'd
gotten wind of Draino.

"We're livin' together, so what?" Vargo said.

"He wanna talk to me?" Draino said coldly.

"I'll make sure to invite you to the wedding," Vargo said stonily into
the phone, and obscenities erupted from its small speaker.

A melee ensued. Draino grabbed the handset, growled "Hello! Hello!" and
strode out onto the sidewalk. Vargo's eldest daughter, Brittany, 15,
was there. When she heard Draino berating her father, she began screaming
at Draino.

Vargo sighed and laid her head on the bar counter. Even her family life
is a form of internal combustion.

The next day at the gas station, her eyes were red. As usual, she kept
her woes to herself. She, Marta Perez and Joni Hanson, the mother of
night clerk Kelly Hanson, decorated the convenience store with cardboard
Halloween pumpkins and fake spider webs.

A customer suddenly poked his head through the door: His pump wasn't
starting properly.

"Darlin'," he drawled to the clerks, "could you please turn me on?"


Ferrell Martin was also in distress.

Home from his usual two-week shift aboard Petronius, the strapping
Cajun oil worker was getting hopelessly lost.

Martin's ancestors had fished and trapped the watery maze of Bayou
Terrebonne, a fabled swamp about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, for
more than 200 years. But today, Louisiana's lush wetlands, the richest in
America, are dying, crumbling into the sea. Martin knelt at the bow of
a bass boat steered by one of his numberless bayou relatives, trying,
again and again, to get the boat unstuck from hidden bars of mud.

"I can't even find the same fishing holes anymore," Martin said,
fanning away mosquitoes. "The whole place is just sinking away."

It's been widely known for decades that flood-control measures on the
Mississippi River are chewing away at Louisiana's biologically rich
coasts. The river's sediments are being flushed disastrously out into the
deep sea. And the swamps aren't being replenished; a marshland the size
of Delaware has already washed away. But new studies suggest that oil
and natural gas extraction may be another culprit.

The U.S. Geological Survey believes land in and around Bayou Terrebonne
is starting to sag like a deflating wineskin as fossil fuels are pumped
out in massive quantities. In some places, it has settled 11 inches.
For a landscape that is in many cases only a few feet above sea level,
the implications are ominous. Erosion and subsidence have eaten away at
least 2 miles of coastline near Ferrell Martin's modest house in
Montegut, La.

He recognized the irony: Oil has yanked thousands of once-impoverished
Cajuns into the middle class, but it is now helping swallow their
ancestral homes.

"Everything's a trade-off, I guess," Martin said, baiting another hook
with a sardine and casting his line into what used to be dry cattle
pastures in his youth.

This, too, gets burned up by the cars in South Elgin: a clod of
southern Louisiana.


Y103.9--The Beat of the 'Burbs--was piping Don McLean's "American Pie"
into the Marathon gas station store.

As usual, five truckloads of landscaping crews showed up at 7:30 a.m.:
exhausted-looking Mexicans with bed head and chin stubble tanking up on
junk food and energy drinks. Among them was "Mr. Ding Dongs and Coke,"
so known for the breakfast he always buys. At the gas station,
customers don't have proper names. They are called "darling," "honey,"
"sweetie," "mi hijo" ("my son") or simply referred to by the products they

Gas prices remained high--just easing below $3 a gallon. The drivers
were sometimes rude.

A skinny old man with the face of a closet drinker stalked in from the

"$49 for half a tank of gas! Jay-sus!" he snapped.

"I know, I know, sir," said clerk Joni Hanson.

"It's a rip-off. A total scam!"

"I don't set the prices, sir."

The old man paid. He vowed angrily never to return.

"He'll be back," clerk Marta Perez told Hanson. And she was right.

18 March 2007, 12:33 AM
Chapter 2: The frontier

The lot occupied by the South Elgin Marathon--Kane County parcel No.
0636200008--first entered recorded history in 1836.

Land records show that the 4,500-square-foot station is part of a
homestead cleared by a pioneer named Thomas Mitchell, who arrived by wagon
from New York and settled in the beautiful, parklike Fox River Valley
soon after the local Sauk and Fox Indians were crushed in the Black Hawk

This part of the nation was once called the Northwest Frontier, and it
was coveted by settlers for its rich soils and abundant hydropower.
America's aggressive history of expansion--its sense of entitlement to
boundless energy and resources--has never really paused. Indeed, now it
extends to all corners of the world.

From last fall to early spring, a new frontier stream flowed through
the Fox River Valley in suburban South Elgin. Its name is the Akwa Ibom.
And though it helped keep gasoline bubbling from the Marathon pumps on
a busy corner of Highway 25, its real headwaters lie 8,000 miles away
in the malarial swamps of Nigeria.

There, crude flowing from offshore fields near the Akwa Ibom's tropical
delta supplied the station with roughly a quarter of its oil. This was
just one tiny rivulet in the alarming torrent of foreign-bought crude
that prompted President Bush, one of the most oil-friendly presidents in
history, to concede in his latest State of the Union speech that
"America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of
the world."

In its 2005 annual report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration
says that 58 percent of all the petroleum burned in the United States
now comes from abroad. That stark dependency on outsiders, analysts say,
will grow even if the last pockets of oil in America are drilled.

"We know how important this issue is," said Laura Binning, 37, a
regular customer at the South Elgin Marathon. "But it's so big. It's hard to
get your head around it."

Binning pulled her black H2 Hummer into the station one Saturday
afternoon when Qua Iboe crude from Nigeria made up about 26 percent of her
$72 gas purchase. She was taking her son Parker, 8, to Little League. She
estimated, sheepishly, that her vehicle gets 10 city miles per gallon,
moderately better than a semitrailer truck.

"At first it's on your mind," Binning said. "But then you get so busy.
I got screaming kids. My mom's got cancer. And I work as a real state
marketer out of my house. So you forget."

Binning exudes no-nonsense competence. With her husband, Tim, she rents
houses and owns a RE/MAX All Pro real estate franchise in the western
suburbs. They and their three children live in a grand home on 2.7 acres
in St. Charles, an upscale suburb adjoining more working-class South
Elgin. (Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once owned a mansion nearby.)
Aside from Laura's Hummer, the couple own two other vehicles. Their
swimming pool heating bill in October topped $2,000.

Laura flashed a wan smile while ticking off her energy bills, just as
she winced hearing herself describe the Hummer as "something that
signals success to our clients." She knew how that sounded.

But as it happened, the Binnings were among the few gas station
customers to ponder America's energy future beyond tomorrow's uptick in gas
prices. They grappled with buying an electric-gasoline hybrid vehicle as
their next car. They followed the news about peak oil. They fretted
over the kind of world their three rambunctious boys--Weston, 3, Spencer,
6, and Parker--would inherit.

In the end, like most Americans, they were optimists. They had little
choice. Their livelihood--selling property in suburbia--rests primarily
on a dubious supposition: the continuing abundance of cheap crude.
Laura faces this reality every day. Shuttling the boys across the suburbs
to piano lessons, floor hockey practice, Little League and hip-hop dance
classes, she can rack up 40 miles or more in the Hummer.

"Are there problems coming? Maybe. But I prefer to think the glass is
half full," said Tim, 37, arriving home from his office one afternoon
after a commute of 19 miles each way. "When shortages jack up oil prices
permanently, someone will have the incentive to invent another fuel.
That's how the market works."

"Like you work--you're a workaholic," Laura gibed in her best
Hepburn-Tracy style.

"I am not."

"You were working on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, even on

"I love my job."

The Binnings were sitting in their living room. Their boys played
hand-held computer games. Outside, snow slashed diagonally across their
ample lawn.


Felicia, Beatrice and Comfort were running through Itak Abasi.
Breathless. Their bare feet drummed the Nigerian village's sandy alleyways. In
their small hands they clutched packets of rehydration salts.

The medicine was free, distributed by health officials at the local
school. The village wells were tainted with fecal matter. And people were
dying of acute gastric infections, possibly cholera. Two children had
succumbed that day. Another two would die the following week. The
doctors were angry. They said this was by no means an exceptional occurrence.

Itak Abasi--"Foundation of God" in the local Ibibio language--is a
rural slum festering atop a sandbar at the mouth of the Akwa Ibom River.
Its hovels squat half a mile from the Exxon Mobil oil export terminal
that supplied the bulk of African crude purchased by Marathon and sold in
South Elgin. Since 1971, the facility, a sprawling tank farm, has
funneled billions of dollars worth of petroleum to the United States. Itak
Abasi seethes next door with neither plumbing nor electricity.

"The oil companies are no good," said villager Sunday Jeremiah, 40. "We
are crying daily."

He is a fisherman. And the running little girls--age 10, 11 and 13--are
three of his seven children. They raced each other to the family's
palm-leaf hut, stepped over a doormat of periwinkle shells and handed
Jeremiah the medical salts. Then they darted away, singing nonsense songs.
So far, nobody happened to be dying in the Jeremiah family.

Exxon Mobil's local subsidiary, Mobile Producing Nigeria, pumps the
local oil fields in a joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum
Corp. The U.S. oil giant has a complex relationship with its destitute
neighbors. On one hand, it helped renovate the village's schoolhouse.
But it also spilled at least 40,000 barrels of crude into the sea in
1998, a fiasco that fishermen say permanently destroyed the village's
traditional livelihood.

The powerful Texas-based company is both courted and reviled by the
Ibibio people. The Nigerian central government is for the most part
invisible in the backwater region, so everyone turns to the Americans for
solutions. When asked why villagers didn't dig latrines--a simple way to
blunt fatal gastrointestinal epidemics--Itak Abasi's old, bald-headed
chief snapped, "That's the oil company's job!"

Itak Abasi and South Elgin are alike in this way--resentfully hooked on
the life-altering power of oil.

The only difference:

In America, it is the scarcity and cost of petroleum that feed anxiety
and outrage, whereas in Africa--where Jeremiah sat in his dim hut,
staring hard at the hydration salts in his stubby fisherman's hands--it is
the substance's taunting abundance.


Few Americans realize it, but they have hitched their wagon--or rather
their 210 million cars and trucks--to Africa's troubled star.

It is a striking development. The planet's last superpower is rattling
its half-empty oilcan at the poorest continent in the world.

This state of affairs has come about because two-thirds of the world's
oil is controlled by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
Countries, or OPEC, and most of it is pooled in the Middle East. Chronic
instability in that region--today stoked by the U.S. intervention in Iraq
and Israel's battle with Hezbollah--has further encouraged the United
States to hedge its oil bets elsewhere. American companies have trudged
to the plateaus of Central Asia looking for low-quality oil. They are
punching wells into the ecologically fragile shallows of the Caspian Sea.
And they are investing billions in upgrading huge but risky oil fields
in business-hostile Russia.

None of these new energy frontiers, however, has captivated industry
boardrooms like Africa.

The continent will never match the lavish petroleum endowments of the
Middle East. Nigeria, Africa's oil heavyweight with 36 billion barrels
of reserves, boasts only a seventh of Saudi Arabia's bounty. Still,
African crude has its advantages. It is light and low in
sulfur--well-suited to pollutant-sensitive U.S. refineries. Its reservoirs are closer to
major East Coast ports. And American companies can do business on the
continent unhampered by the terror war tensions that dog them elsewhere.

Americans already get more oil from Africa than from Saudi Arabia. By
2015, oil experts say, African states will supply a quarter of all U.S.
imports, up from 15 percent today. The United States quietly signaled
this shift in 2002, when the State Department declared African oil a
"strategic national interest," meaning in diplomatic code that U.S. troops
may intervene to protect it.

"I think the U.S. military would find our swamps worse than Iraq,"
snorted Austin Onuoha, a Nigerian human-rights activist who specializes in
oil issues. "But at least they might build some infrastructure after
they invade. Americans always do this, right?"

Onuoha's sarcasm was well-earned. He was talking in the dark, from his
blacked-out house in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The electricity in
Africa's petro-giant had winked out again. And this fit sourly into his main
thesis: Oil is rotting Africa's frail democracies.

Nigeria, like Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Republic of Congo and
Sudan, suffers from what Onuoha and many other human-rights experts call
"the oil curse." In short, geysers of easy petrodollars corrupt weak
African institutions. They unleash reckless government spending. And they
usually stoke internecine fighting over oil loot and entrench political

To fully experience oil's harrowing legacy in Nigeria--the
fifth-largest exporter of crude to the United States--you must catch a plane to
Port Harcourt, the decaying commercial center of the Niger Delta.

By now "P.H.," as the locals dub it, should be the booming capital of a
tropical oil kingdom that spouts as much crude as three Alaskas.
Instead, it's a handmade slum. Foreign oil workers zip between the few
slapdash hotels in curtained mini-vans, hoping to avert kidnapping by
criminal gangs and ethnic militias. The hotels are guarded by men sporting
aviator sunglasses and Kalashnikovs. In April, a car bomb, Nigeria's
first, rocked the city. In this way, Nigeria is looking more each passing
day like the Middle East.

The bloodiest chaos unfolds mostly unseen, however, out amid the syrupy
brown rivers that braid the mangroves before sliding into the Atlantic.
There, armies of the poor battle the government, foreign companies and
each other for a fair share of oil wealth. The impulse is
understandable. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Nigeria's staggering $340
billion in oil revenue has been pocketed by 1 percent of the
population--a cast of thugs who include the world's most venal politicians and

Rounding out the picture is world-class pollution (at least 4,800 oil
spills over a 20-year period), "bunkerers" (oil thieves who drill into
pipelines, often incinerating themselves and hundreds of others in the
process), and brutish military tactics (Nigerian troops torching
thatched villages and strafing oil smugglers' barges with helicopter
gunships). Nobody knows the death toll in the delta. Yet if the killing was once
ignored, that's no longer the case.

The tightest crude market in 30 years is turning Nigeria's obscure
swamp skirmishes into a global energy flash point. Nigerian insurgents fire
off e-mails to the media announcing their next attack on a Shell
platform--and crude futures quiver in Tokyo and New York. Oil first hit the
$50-a-barrel mark in 2005 when an SUV-driving warlord named Mujahid
Dokubo-Asari threatened "all-out war" in the delta.

"We know the world covets Nigerian oil more than ever," said Onengiya
Erekosima, a Bible-quoting spokesman for the Niger Delta People's
Volunteer Force, one of many militias that flourish in the lawless squalor of
Nigeria's oil patch.

"We will force the international community to respond to our
suffering," Erekosima declared, "because we can cut off their crude at any time."

He made this threat in his underwear while seated on an old couch in
Port Harcourt. It was 11 o'clock at night. Iron bars protected the
doorway of one of his movement's safe houses. A bare light bulb jaundiced the
mostly barren room. The pantless rebel dug a handful of hand-scrawled
manifestoes from his cheap briefcase. Proudly, he waved a message from
the White House:

"On behalf of President Bush, thank you for your correspondence. We
appreciate hearing your views and welcome your suggestions. Due to the
large volume of e-mail received, the White House is unable to respond to
every message, and therefore this response is an autoreply."

About a quarter of Nigeria's 2.3 million-barrel-a-day crude flow is
regularly choked off by the likes of Erekosima.

In Itak Abasi, Sunday Jeremiah's fishing village, the oil war seemed
far away. But this was an illusion.

"No jobs, no running water, no electricity, no opportunity, no
dignity," spat one furious youth, who gave his name only as Festus. "I am going
to carry a gun. I am going to blow up some wells. Otherwise you get
nothing in Nigeria."

Tribal sorcerers were daubing young men with chicken blood out in the
swamps. Palm wine libations were being offered to the ancestors. This
would protect Ibibio militants from bullets, which would "pass through us
without harm," Festus said, "like stones through water."


In South Elgin, Michelle Vargo was Scotch-taping notices to the
Marathon's convenience store countertops: "FREE CANDY BAR IF CASHIER DOES NOT

Post-Katrina gas theft had eased when prices ebbed to $2.85 a
gallon--the apparent pain threshold of American motoring. But the convenience
store sales had slumped. Since they represent 80 percent of the station's
profits, the owner, Prairie State Enterprises, was leaning hard on the
staff--and especially on Vargo--to vend.

The gas station store's 550-item inventory exceeds the shopping choices
of even the biggest supermarkets in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

But that didn't help Vargo. What do jaded American drivers want? What
do they need?

She offers them 88 varieties of cigarettes, 111 types of cool drinks,
eight flavors of Tums antacid tablets, three choices of mini-pizzas
warming under heat lamps, banana nut cappuccino, AC/DC ball caps,
ultra-ribbed condoms, 7-inch locking pliers, and the Denzel Washington version
of "The Manchurian Candidate" on DVD. For the spiritually inclined she
stocks "Cheech & Chong's" incense and two kinds of Native American dream
catchers--meant to ward off bad spirits--made in China and tagged at
$9.99 each.

"I'm gonna walk away if the pressure keeps up," Vargo said. "I'd hate
to do it. I was here during construction. I feel like this station is
mine. But I can't take it forever."

Her cell phone rang. She took the call outside. She paced the pumps,
her free arm gesturing wildly under the pearly winter sky. She was
ignored by the limo drivers in their dead men's suits. By the grumpy and
overworked truckers. And by a man who arrived every day to break a $20 bill
with an M&Ms purchase so he could play the Lotto machines.

The station's key commodity--refined petroleum--was as invisible as
ever. The only evidence that it even existed was a faint tang of gasoline.


Almost every night, Sunday Jeremiah climbs into a motorized open boat
and confronts the monster crosscurrents at the mouth of the Akwa Ibom

Two waters, salt and sweet, clash there like fanatical armies. They
throw up huge, erratic, three-cornered waves that could swamp the most
accomplished seaman. Yet Jeremiah threaded them standing, his knees bent
to absorb the slamming of the rollers, one hand firmly gripping the
outboard's steering handle. Deftly, he goosed the boat up cliff-like swells
and sleighed down their watery backs to safety.

"It is nothing," he shrugged, much as a U.S. commuter might dismiss the
workaday lethality of the interstate.

Jeremiah was returning home from the high sea--"eye sea" in his delta
accent--after an awful night's fishing. Assisted by a lanky colleague
named Sunny, he had unspooled 500-yard-long drift nets near gas flares
that blazed like minor suns. Six hours of work gleans one basket of
bonga, a fish the size of a hand.

"Onshore wind," Jeremiah said stone-faced. "Fish don't like it. It
pushes them deep down."

He also blamed oil spills--something Exxon Mobil denies. "[P]ossible
effects are assessed after any type of [spill]," company spokeswoman
Susan Reeves said in a written statement. "Such assessments have indicated
no losses, in terms of type or quantity of fish."

The corporation says it paid coastal communities millions of dollars in
restitution after the huge 1998 spill. Reeves added that Exxon Mobil's
subsidiary, in cooperation with the Nigerian national oil company, also
spends an additional $10 million to $12 million a year on community
development in Nigeria, most of it on education, health, roads,
micro-enterprises and agricultural assistance.

Little of such money is evident in Itak Abasi, however. In May, angry
mobs attacked the company's tank farm in a dispute ignited by a lack of
jobs. Local people took oil workers hostage. And at least one Ibibio
youth was shot dead by Nigerian security forces. The sorcerers' juju
didn't work.

Dawn was breaking as Jeremiah returned home. The flares burned holes in
the sky along a pink horizon.

His thatched hut was still darkened. His wife, Rosalie, crouched on the
dirt floor inside, fanning the embers of a cooking fire. Children
stirred on their palm-leaf pallets. Exhausted and salt-stained, Jeremiah
laid back on a rough wooden bench and dozed off to the mutterings of a
portable radio. The newscaster was eulogizing Stella Obasanjo, the wife of
Nigeria's president, who had just died in Spain--after cosmetic
surgery, or so the local press said.

Jeremiah's catch fetched 450 naira at the local market, about $3. His
boat engine had swallowed $6 in fuel. As it happened, it was Oct. 27,
the day when Exxon Mobil announced record quarterly oil and gas profits
of $7.35 billion.


Tim Binning's cell phone rang. It did this on average 60 to 70 times a
day. He has a 4,000-minute-a-month account. This time it was Laura. A
washing machine at one of the Binnings' rental units was on the fritz.

"Go ahead, buy the new one," he advised. "Repairs will cost us almost
as much."

Tim was at work in his car, a new Volkswagen Phaeton, a luxury sedan
that the couple decided to purchase instead of a hybrid. (Laura worried
about trading in the devalued Hummer at a loss.) The sensor-activated
wipers slapped away a gray slush, and a satellite navigation console
glowed on his dashboard.

A landscape utterly decoupled from Chicago's core slid past Tim's
windshield in icy tableaux: Starbucks, horse pastures, big-box stores and
old farm-town clapboards marooned amid strip malls. It seemed a place
more congenial to automobiles than human beings. People rarely appeared on
sidewalks. Yet this suburban backdrop is where more than half of
Americans now live.

"Few people here go into downtown Chicago anymore," said Tim, dodging
traffic. "When they relocate, it's between suburbs. When they go to
work, it's between suburbs. And when they commute it's in all directions.
This makes mass transit impractical."

Tim is as adept at reading the asteroid belt of Chicago's edge-city
sprawl as Sunday Jeremiah is at coolly appraising the sea.

He noted "mature" versus "hot edge" housing developments and could
accurately eyeball square footages while zipping past at 40 m.p.h. He saw
the invisible county lines--and property tax differentials--that helped
explain why builders erected modest $120,000 townhouses on one corner
and $500,000 McMansions on the other. He pointed out that U.S. houses
are vastly more heat efficient today than 20 years ago, but added that
all these energy savings are eroded by constantly ballooning dream
houses: The number of homes larger than 2,400 square feet has doubled since
1987, even as U.S. families continue to shrink.

"Look at what people have now," he said. "Two cars is the norm. So is
two or three color TVs. Who in the 1950s had that?"

Tim parked in front of an aging ranchette. The house was for sale. He
was assessing its value after its pipes froze, resulting in major water
damage. He ordinarily didn't do this anymore. He handled high-end
investment properties. Stepping through the cold, stained, empty house in
his suit and raincoat, he seemed anxious to leave.

Yet this, according to James Howard Kunstler, was a showcase home of
the grim new America to come.

Kunstler, a writer of some renown in urban planning circles, is the
Ghost of Christmas Future for peakists. While most analysts confine
themselves to debating when the planet's oil supplies will start to slump,
Kunstler has plotted energy starvation to its logical extremes. Citing
everything from highway maintenance protocols to Wal-Mart's "warehouse on
wheels" inventory system, he paints a harsh vista of oil-deprived life

"America finds itself nearing the end of the cheap-oil age having
invested its national wealth in a living arrangement--suburban sprawl--that
has no future," he asserts in his 2005 book "The Long Emergency."
"Suburbia has a tragic destiny."

Kunstler envisions the car-dependent landscape of the suburbs,
especially the farthest-flung subdivisions, decaying into "slums of the
future." He sees the doors of oversize, unheated tract homes flapping open
forlornly to the chill Midwest winds. Big-box retailers that rely on
trucks that get, at best, 8 miles per gallon to deliver sneakers made in
China will simply implode, he says. The cavernous shell of the local
Wal-Mart will "become anything from an infirmary to a Pentecostal roller

In this bleak vision of a slower, poorer, brown-out world, only trains
and barges will be efficient enough to move goods. And millions of
Americans will return, painfully, to their agrarian roots. With the
enormous energy inputs of industrial agriculture a vanished luxury (up to 16
calories of fossil fuel are now required to produce a single calorie
worth of grain), huge amounts of manual labor will be needed for
survival-level farming.

Many critics call such predictions hysterical. But a high-powered study
released last year by the Department of Energy, the so-called Hirsch
report, warns that even with a concerted national effort it could take
decades to transition from oil to fuel alternatives, and that "without
timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be

With crude prices soaring into orbit, powerful people are listening.
Peak oil theory, espoused by the likes of one of Bush's billionaire
friends, Richard Rainwater--a Kunstler acolyte--helped persuade the
president to insert the "addicted to oil" phrase into the State of the Union
speech, according to some Washington insiders.

Back in his car, Tim called Laura to arrange a meeting at a mall eatery
12 miles away. Lunchtime congestion was thickening. He sat, just
another commuter alone with his cell phone, in a long line of vehicles at a
red light.

Americans consume about 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline each year
simply idling in traffic. This equals the annual oil output of Equatorial
Guinea, Africa's most promising new petro-state.


Sunday Jeremiah lay in the prow of his boat.

It was another clammy night at sea. The sky was curdled an angry
orange; such is the brilliance of the gas flares reflected on clouds dragged
south by West Africa's harmattan winds. Some children in the Niger
Delta know night skies of no other color. Starlight is alien to them.

Jeremiah bolted upright when a loud quacking surrounded the boat. The
sound was exactly like a large flock of ducks--except it was coming from
under the water.

"Bonga," he said of the small inshore fish. "They make this noise."

He muscled in his long net. It was completely empty.


Cruz Rodriguez looked up from the Marathon parking lot: Canada geese
were honking overhead, paddling through a sky gray as the inside of an
ice cube.

Rodriguez is a 23-year-old station clerk. He raised his push broom like
a shotgun and took aim. He watched the birds fly out of sight. He went
back to sweeping the station lot again.

It was Christmas Day. The Marathon never sleeps. A cross-section of
America--schoolgirls, Bubbas in pickups, rapper wannabes in chains and
baggies--stopped to fuel up in red Santa caps. Rodriguez wore one too.

Then the gas station phone rang. It was Michelle Vargo, just checking

"She's called five times today," Rodriguez said, shaking his head in

He was a former gangbanger. Jail had made him philosophical. He once
reminded Vargo: "It's just a gas station. When it comes down to it,
that's all it is."

The station's computers showed the Marathon sitting atop 10,353 gallons
of regular and 2,867 of premium. (Midgrade gasoline draws from both
tanks.) About 2,600 gallons of this energy bomb came from Sunday
Jeremiah's simmering coast. Rodriguez wasn't interested.

"I got my own worries," he muttered. He has a criminal record. "I
wanted to enlist in the Army, but they wouldn't take me. They'd of had my
butt in Iraq by now."

A month later, in the form of 8 gallons of gas--in essence, the merest
vapors left in an empty tanker truck--Iraq would come to him.

18 March 2007, 12:42 AM
Chapter 3: The war

The giant Rumailah oil field in southern Iraq is a war cemetery.

Rusting tanks, artillery pieces and eroding stumps of concrete blast
walls jut like rotted teeth from the sands of the surrounding Ash
Shamiyah desert. Some of the war junk is old, dating to the Iran-Iraq
conflict. But much of the debris is newer: troop carriers and gun emplacements
incinerated by U.S. or British jets during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gas
flares smudge the barren horizons a dirty khaki brown.

The few roads are empty and cratered. It is a scene of unsurpassed
ugliness. And it is guarded by scruffy men in baggy blue uniforms: Iraq's
new Oil Protection Force, the custodians of the world's third-largest
petroleum reserves.

"This must be a joke!" snapped Mazin Yousif, peering out from the back
seat of his SUV at a sandbagged OPF checkpoint. "Impossible!"

A former colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, Yousif, 49, works for Olive
Group, a British security firm that specializes in oil field
protection. He had just spent 18 months training 4,500 Iraqi recruits to patrol
the nation's vital southern oil fields against sabotage and fuel

But strange new faces were appearing at the checkpoints. They were the
bearded members of local Shiite parties and their violent militias. His
oil army was being infiltrated. In places like Rumailah, Iraq's
boggling oil wealth was falling prey to sectarian greed.

A stiff, bespectacled man cocooned in body armor and escorted by a
three-car convoy of British and Iraqi bodyguards, Yousif glared at the
militiamen. They squinted back with open contempt.

"We are living in the Chicago of gangster times," Yousif said bitterly
back at his house in Basra, the seedy port city that is Iraq's southern
oil capital. "Mafia Chicago, without the nightclubs."

As it turned out, during that particular week, about 30,000 barrels of
the Rumailah field's production -- high-quality crude dubbed Basrah
Light -- were headed for Chicago. They were part of the Middle Eastern
energy habit that the United States vowed to kick after the Arab oil
embargo of 1973. The U.S. still buys 15 to 20 percent of its imported crude
from the unsettled region.

It was late November in Iraq. Date harvesting season. Victims of
Sunni-Shiite violence were being dumped, at the rate of five or six bodies a
day, into the dry canals of Basra.

Yousif, an old secularist like most ex-members of Hussein's Baath
Party, sat alone in his walled home. Three guards with machine guns
patrolled his yard. Insurgents have threatened to kill him for cooperating with
the coalition. For their safety, he sent his wife, Suad, and his
daughters, Zaineb, 19, and Souhira, 14, into exile in the United Arab
Emirates. (He'd been shot on the job already, in the leg, by unknown
assailants.) A frustrated hunter, he spends hours at his computer looking at
pictures of wild birds.

Three days before Yousif's disconcerting checkpoint encounter, a
supertanker named the Front Crown loaded up on Iraqi crude at the Basra Oil

The black-hulled vessel, flying the flag of the Bahamas and skippered
by a Russian, chugged 36 days around the Horn of Africa, then steered
northwest across the Atlantic to Galveston Bay. Five days later,
according to Marathon schedulers, it docked at the high-tech Louisiana Offshore
Oil Port, where pumps as mighty as locomotives sucked a million barrels
of oil from its hold in 11 hours--the same volume of crude that was
burned by all the Allied armies in World War I.

Most of the cargo ended up at refineries across the Midwest. A wisp,
about 126 tanker trucks' worth, traveled north through pipelines to
Marathon's Robinson plant.

These molecules snaked north through the Midwest at the pace of a walk,
past rural roads whose telephone poles sometimes bore small, beribboned
photos of local GIs killed in Iraq: a bitter enough irony, given that
large volumes of crude are now being diverted in Iraq, intelligence
sources say, to fund the anti-U.S. insurgency.

Indeed, of all the setbacks since the fall of Hussein, few match the
ruinous decline of Iraq's oil sector--once deemed by the Bush
administration to be the economic salvation of the country.

The Iraqi fuel reached South Elgin in a stew of Nigerian, Saudi and
domestic hydrocarbons. Cruz Rodriguez, the Marathon's night clerk, bought
5 gallons on the chilly January night it arrived.

"Check it out, dude," Rodriguez said.

He ran a hand over the worn upholstery of his first car, a 1995
cherry-red Jeep that buried him $8,000 in debt. It gets 18 miles per gallon.

Rodriguez was all but broke after fueling up. He bought a 25-cent Zebra
Cakes cookie for dinner. Working the cash register all night, he
glanced compulsively out at the Jeep. He seemed worried it might disappear.

***What are the hidden costs of America's imported oil? The answer is
complex. It may ultimately be unknowable. But this hasn't daunted the likes
of Milton Copulos.

A tenacious economist with the National Defense Council Foundation--a
right-of-center Washington think tank--Copulos spent 18 solid months
poring over hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents,
toiling to fix a price tag on America's addiction to global crude. He parsed
oil-related defense spending in the Middle East. He calculated U.S.
jobs and investments lost to steep crude prices. He even factored in the
lifelong medical bills of some 18,000 U.S. troops wounded in Iraq as of
March. (About $1.5 million each.)

Copulos is a highly respected analyst in Washington. And his exhaustive
findings flabbergasted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this

The actual cost of gasoline refined from imported oil, according to

Eight dollars a gallon.

When he isolated the hidden costs of Middle Eastern crude in
particular, the price jumped to $11. This included a war premium that swelled the
Pentagon's spending to protect all Persian Gulf oil to $137 billion a
year. In a truly transparent economy, by Copulos' math, filling up
Rodriguez's Jeep would run about $230.

Consumers don't dodge the bill for all these masked expenditures.
Instead, they pay for them indirectly, through higher taxes, or by saddling
their children and grandchildren with a ballooning national debt--one
that's increasingly financed by foreigners. The result: Unaware of the
true costs of their oil habit, U.S. motorists see no obvious reason to
curb their energy gluttony.

"Gas isn't too expensive," said Copulos. "It's way, way too cheap."

Or, as he put it to senators, quoting the cartoon character Pogo: "We
have met the enemy and they is us."

In fact, many experts think Copulos' Olympian feat of accounting is
still much too conservative. Nobody can really calculate, they say, the
future security cost incurred by funneling petrodollars to regimes that
have incubated Islamic terrorism, such as Saudi Arabia. Or tally foreign
oil's role in global warming.

Or, for that matter, amortize loneliness.

***No credible U.S. analyst pegs the agonies in Iraq primarily to oil. But
Mazin Yousif does. Because, in effect, he has to.

"The Americans will not allow anything too terrible to happen here,"
Yousif said hopefully, a reference to the country's immense oil
potential. "If you control Iraq, you control the economy of the world. I think,
eventually, the coalition will help Iraq become stable and prosperous
like Qatar or Kuwait."

His convoy was circling a dusty neighborhood in Basra. Gunshots popped
sporadically in the distance. Riding shotgun with AK-47s tucked beside
their seats, his bodyguards scanned the sidewalks, communicating by
radio. When the street was empty, they gunned the vehicles to a metal gate
and hustled Yousif through.

Once inside, the Iraqi plunked his combat helmet onto a kitchen table
with disgust and chucked his flak jacket onto the carpet. In this way,
at a time that always changes, he ends his commutes from the oil fields.

The house was silent. Yousif's son, Ali Yousif, 22, was absent again.

Ali was the only family member who refused to evacuate Iraq for his own
protection. Lately, he had been rebelling against his father's taut
discipline. There were arguments over household chores. And the young
chemical engineering student had begun spending lots of time at a local
Sunni mosque, a hazardous display of faith in sectarian and
Shiite-dominated Basra.

Yousif worries that his son is flirting with religious extremism.
Shiite gangs in the city--the Mahdi Army, Master of Martyrs and others--have
whipped schoolgirls for dancing at coed picnics, fire-bombed "impious"
liquor stores. They have also dragged Sunnis and ex-Baathists, like
Yousif, into the canals of no return.

"It cannot be easy to be the son of a former officer," Yousif admitted,
looking in on Ali's vacant bedroom. "He is a good boy, but others put
ideas in his head. I have tried to be his friend, to turn him around."

Waiting for Ali, he sat down at his computer. He began clicking through
pictures of birds.

"Look--cranes," he said. "We have beautiful cranes in Iraq."

***Like Mazin Yousif, Cruz Rodriguez was awaiting the return of a loved

He was tapping out an e-mail at the Elgin public library.

"Hey bro, just got your e-mail and was able to get away from work for a
bit of time ... Would really like to meet up and do something like
shoot some pool or if you know where we could go fishing ..."

Rodriguez was writing an older half-brother who had walked out of his
life 16 years before. Rodriguez had located the man by sheer chance, as
you can only in America: He'd spotted him on an episode of Oprah, about
rekindling a sex life in marriage. A few minutes' search on the
Internet connected the rest of the dots.

The Marathon night clerk punched the "send" button. He blinked at the
empty screen--a pale, stocky kid with "Rodriguez" tattooed on one side
of his neck and "Pure Pleasure" on the other. Then he drove to the
Marathon to work graveyard.

Cops show up at the station like clockwork at midnight every night,
looking bloodless under the astringent lights. They buy coffee and
cigarettes. Then come the usual insomniacs. The bar-closing refugees at 2 a.m.
And, a bit later, haggard strippers from Blackjacks, a men's club on
Highway 25.

"Know where to buy some dope?" one asked, drunk.

"This ain't an all-service station," deadpanned Rodriguez.

That night he sold more than 1,000 gallons of regular: enough to quench
America's 250-gallons-a-second oil thirst for the space of a few

*** Iraq's state-run Southern Oil Co., one of the biggest petroleum
corporations in the world, occupies a sprawling, concrete cube in Basra.

Its halls are hung with bright new posters. They announce in Arabic,
"With Our Oil, We Realize Our Ambitions." Yet a peek into any office
reveals unhurried people drinking sweet tea over ancient electric
typewriters. Or abandoned desks. Or snoozing security men in their stocking
feet. The reception office is decorated with a large portrait of
pudgy-cheeked Moqtada Sadr, the hotheaded Shiite cleric who has twice rebelled
against U.S. forces and would doubtless like to again.

From this drab building, virtually all of Iraq's daily output, 2
million barrels, is being managed.

Vice President Dick Cheney predicted the country's output might surge
by 500,000 barrels a day within a year of Baghdad's fall. These liquid
riches were then supposed to bankroll the nation's reconstruction, as
well as supply U.S. markets.

President Bush's then-chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, was
even bolder. "When there is a regime change in Iraq, you could add 3
million to 5 million barrels of production to world supply," he said in
2002. "The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the

Since then, reality has been harsh.

Iraqi output still sags far below prewar levels despite a recent
allocation of $1.7 billion in U.S. taxpayer money to patch up Iraq's decrepit
oil fields. Violence stunts production. In mid-July, gunmen abducted
the head of Iraq's Northern Oil Company. Demoralized Iraqi oil workers
are burying pipelines in concrete to keep insurgents from blowing them

World-class reserves are being pumped at full blast, a procedure that
shortens the life of the reservoir but generates lots of money.
Corruption, meanwhile, is blatant. Iraq's finance minister, Ali Allawi,
estimates that about half of all the profits from oil smuggling are being used
to fund the insurgency. Rebels divert tanker trucks almost as soon as
they leave loading terminals. Drivers who don't cooperate are shot.

Iraq's petroleum spoils are even fracturing the U.S.-supported
government. In oil capital Basra, scores of people have been slaughtered in
political turf wars over oil revenue. The governor's Fadilah party and at
least some police are said to be involved. Much of the new construction
visible in the dog-eared city is the garish mansions of oil warlords.

"The interfactional fighting over oil is getting worse, not better,"
said Jamal Qureshi, an oil analyst at PFC Energy in Washington, an energy
consulting firm. "I continue to pencil in declines in Iraqi output for
the next couple of years. This isn't pessimism. It's a real mess."

***By contrast, life seemed to be looking up at the corner of Illinois
Highway 25 and Middle Street.

Michelle Vargo began appearing at the Marathon station with newly
curled hair and fresh nail polish. She even began calling the sullen
cigarette salesmen "Sweetheart."

"Roy's proposed," she confessed, grinning. "We're gonna get hitched in
June." Roy Draino had shown up at the station spit-polished and
self-conscious in a black leather jacket. Appropriately, plastic Valentine's
Day hearts decorated the convenience store.

He poked at the pink stuffed monkeys that screeched "Hoo-hoo-hoo" when
touched, one of the gas station's selection of romantic gifts. Then, he
never returned.

Draino had a run-in with the law, Vargo explained later. He was
arrested while driving on a revoked license. For now, the wedding was off.

Her fingernail polish grew chipped. She closed her office door more
often. And the store profits flat-lined. The Iraqi crude molecules wafted
from the station's nozzles for about five days, and finally

***Mazin Yousif wanted a break from war. So two bodyguards with AK-47s
accompanied him to Basra's sandbagged airport.

He careened past buildings plastered with the dour visage of the late
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the patriarch of Iran's Islamist revolution
and a popular figure among Iraqi Shiites. Yousif slipped by tanker
trucks, British tanks and beggar widows who lunged suicidally at passing
traffic, gnarled hands outstretched. Gray-suited Chinese oil company
workers crowded the departure terminal. (They were combatants of a sort
too: the risk-tolerant vanguard of Beijing's increasingly urgent quest for

"If I had lost faith in Iraq, I wouldn't be here anymore," Yousif said,
boarding a flight to Sharjah, one of the glistening commercial capitals
of the United Arab Emirates. "I'm waiting to see what happens with the
new government. If things don't improve, I will leave--go someplace

But where that could be is hard to imagine.

Though deeply alienated by the war, Yousif is as Iraqi as the white
cattle egrets that flock in the dry fields around Basra. His bearing, his
worldview, his history, even his shiny brown business suit betrayed his
nationality upon landing. At Sharjah, his pride could barely endure the
minutes-long inspection of his passport at immigration. Scowling, the
lieutenant colonel in him bristled.

An hour later he rang a doorbell in a modern skyscraper. His daughters
and wife bounded happily out.

"So where's my gift?" demanded Souhira "So So" Yousif, his sassy
youngest daughter and his pet. "No gift?"

"I am your gift," Mazin retorted.

"That's not good enough!"

"You see, she doesn't love me," Mazin said, beaming. "She loves my

"No, I love you both!"

It was a good act.

But So So, in her mall-rat jeans and T-shirt, was receding from the
aging soldier even as he hugged her. Neither of his daughters, Suad Yousif
would tell her husband later, wanted to return to Iraq.

Cruz Rodriguez held a reunion of his own.

After weeks of exchanging phone calls and e-mails, the Marathon clerk
and his runaway brother finally agreed to meet, for the first time since
1990, at a shopping mall. The brother, a half-sibling by a different
father, was wary. Family life had been bruising. (Rodriguez described his
parents' early years as "serious partying.") But the rapport between
the two men was immediate and warm.

Rodriguez's brother was an engineer in his 30s. He brought snapshots of
his wife and kids. Rodriguez owned no photo album but spoke of his
troubled years with the Gangster Disciples gang.

"He wants to take it slow," Rodriguez said back at the gas station. "He
still don't want to see my dad."

To Rodriguez, the meeting was another sign, like his red Jeep, of a new
phase opening in his life. He threw himself into extra chores at work,
like cleaning the security camera lenses. Also, he began dating Kelly
Hanson, the other night clerk, declaring the two wanted to do "something
good with our lives."

In the meantime, the gasoline flowed. One customer showed up to buy gas
in a bathrobe and slippers. Another, a hungry-looking senior, hauled in
a plastic bag full of Kennedy half dollars--55 of them--for a fill-up.
A businessman in a BMW, hearing that a fraction of his tankful
originated in Iraq, snorted, "In that case, it should be free."

Fuel from yet another global hot-spot already was making its way toward
the station. It came on the heels of a blizzard that marooned South
Elgin in an antique stillness, emptying the streets of all sound and

For a few hours, Highway 25 reverted to the dark, glacier-scraped
steppe it once had been. But then the plows broke through. And the cars
groped their way back, once again, to the Marathon.

18 March 2007, 01:00 AM
Chapter 4: Last call

Mike Trager doesn't seem like the sort of guy who shapes the destiny of

A modest, easygoing man with a fondness for ice hockey and plaid
hunting jackets, Trager works for A#1 Cab in suburban Elgin. His kidneys were
surgically removed two years earlier after a massive heart attack, and
he liked to joke that, without those organs, he was custom-designed for
cab driving: He could sip beverages all day long and never make a pit
stop. He survived on dialysis.

One Friday at 11:30 a.m., Trager stopped by the Marathon station. He
was a regular. He pumped $38 worth of gas into his taxi mini-van. Then he
shuffled, as usual, into the convenience store for a cold drink. Later,
parked on the concrete banks of the Fox River, he settled into his
12-hour shift by watching the gamblers leaving Elgin's riverboat casino.

"The idea," Trager, 41, said a little dreamily, "is to find a big
winner who wants to drive around." But that didn't happen. Instead, his
radio crackled, and a terse voice ordered him to pick up a fare at the
public-aid office. His take: $3.20, no tip. He smiled wanly, shaking his
head. He seemed used to disappointment.

Trager couldn't defy the A#1 dispatcher, but he had, in his own way,
already influenced the course of global events that day: Buying gasoline
in America does this. No other commodity wields such enormous, hidden

With his purchase, for instance, Trager helped prop up one of the last
leftist regimes in the world. His money also made a bunch of
impoverished Indians happy. But to understand how, you must first hail another
cab, only this time 2,500 miles south--in Caracas, Venezuela.

Taxis in Venezuela come cheap. Gas in the oil-flush Caribbean nation
sells for 14 cents a gallon. For less than $150, a driver narcotized by a
collection of John Denver CDs will transport you six long hours into
the country's parched hinterlands, to a faded oil town called Anaco.
There you must swap your cab for a high-clearance truck. Another hour's
journey across an arid savanna will bring you to your final destination,
the Karina Indian village of Mapiricure.

According to Marathon refinery experts and Venezuelan energy analysts,
Mapiricure was a minor source of Trager's fill-up. About 5 percent of
his midgrade fuel originated in the oil and natural gas wells
surrounding the tiny native community. And thanks to the grandiose populist
agenda of President Hugo Chavez, the cabbie--and untold thousands of other
U.S. oil consumers--was bankrolling an Indian renaissance.

The Karinas of eastern Venezuela haven't always enjoyed oil wealth.
That prize was a long time coming. Americans wildcatted the region's first
wells 60 years ago, but in a familiar pattern of indigenous
exploitation, few royalties ever trickled down. Today, under Chavez, they have
good oil field jobs, freshly painted shacks, a new preschool, free medical
care, subsidized food, and such diverse oil-funded ventures as a tribal
chicken farm and a trucking cooperative. Many were buying their first
cars. Indeed, the tribe of self-described Marxists appeared to have a
weakness for old Yankee gas guzzlers like Ford LTDs and Gran Torinos.

Not that they were especially thankful, however, for the likes of
Trager. "Our oil is being sold in Chicago?" said a crusty village elder,
Ramon Barroso, clearly put off by the idea. "Too bad. Nobody here wants to
feed the empire of that criminal George Bush."

Barroso was at that moment leading an impromptu tour of some nearby oil
wells. He wore a T-shirt that declared, in Spanish, "Resistance Against
Landlords." Another Indian was practicing firing a bow and arrow across
the well pad. He fired and retrieved the same arrow many times.
Apparently, it was the only one he had.


Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration's senior diplomat, recently
bemoaned oil's unsavory effect on foreign affairs.

"I can tell you that nothing has really taken me aback more as
secretary of state than the way that the politics of energy is--I will use the
word `warping' diplomacy around the world," Rice told Congress in
April. "It has given extraordinary power to some states that are using that
power in not very good ways for the international system, states that
would otherwise have very little power."

Coming from a former Chevron board member, Rice's shock is puzzling.
After all, King Oil has been meddling in the plans of nations for a
century--at least since Winston Churchill switched the Royal Navy's fuel
supply from coal to crude, thus elevating oil's importance in building
global empires.

In the decades since, oil has molded war plans. (Hundreds of thousands
perished in World War II offensives launched to capture oil supplies.)
It has lubricated alliances. (Washington and Riyadh.) It has trumped
ideology. (In the Cold War, Cuban troops guarded U.S. oil facilities in
communist Angola--the crude was simply that valuable.) And it has
spawned toxic ironies. (Americans' oil addiction, it's now widely agreed,
helps fund both sides in the war on terror by enriching fundamentalist
Islamic regimes.)

Yet today, with uncertainty spreading about the world's crude output,
many experts fear that energy wars will become the defining struggles of
the early 21st Century. Already, the international scramble for oil has
grown more twisted than ever.

A case in point: the bizarre marriage of convenience between the United
States and Venezuela.

Were it not for its mammoth oil reserves, Venezuela would probably
languish on Rice's blacklist of "outposts of tyranny," along with the likes
of Zimbabwe and Cuba. Chavez has outraged the Bush administration for
years, using his huge oil income--estimated at $150 million a day--to
rekindle a leftist movement in Latin America. Chavez also has lavished
billions in aid on his neighbors, currying favor in the region.

Last winter, he gave away millions of dollars worth of heating oil to
grateful, low-income Americans, thus embarrassing the White House. And
just this month, as part of his "anti-imperialist" agenda, Chavez
announced plans to cut off gas sales to 1,800 independently owned Citgo
stations in the U.S. Citgo is owned by the Venezuelan government.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once shrilly compared Chavez's
authoritarian style to that of Hitler. And Chavez has blasted back by
expelling U.S. military attaches, raising taxes on U.S. oil companies, and
pointedly favoring the Chinese and even the Iranians to tap new
reservoirs. He also taunts Bush as a "mass murderer," a "drunkard" and a

Through it all, American motorists continue to chug most of Venezuela's
petroleum output of 3 million barrels a day. Roughly half of Chavez's
government budget is funded by sales to the U.S.

"Imagine a dysfunctional couple," said Venezuelan energy analyst
Alberto Quiros. "They scream and throw things but are still chained together
by their mutual oil dependency. It's crazy."

A small link of that chain of co-dependency was anchored in late
November off the docks of Venezuela's coastal Jose refining complex. It was
an oil tanker called the Stena Italica, loading "natural gasoline"--an
unprocessed distillate found in oil and gas fields--destined for the
U.S. oil port of Texas City, Texas.

Some of that liquid energy ended up in Trager's gas tank. And a small
part of it came from under the worn boots of a South American Indian who
pries the caps off beers with his powerful, work-calloused hands to
toast Hugo Chavez.


Ramon Barroso believes the Americans are going to invade Venezuela from
outer space. He heard this on the radio.

"The Yanquis will attack from the cosmos, because our borders are
well-defended by patriots," Barroso said earnestly. "This will be the
beginning of World War III."

A talkative, sun-wrinkled man in his late 40s, Barroso was toiling in a
field with some 20 other Karina Indians, harvesting bitter yucca, the
tribe's potato-like staple. It was dirty work. Barroso had torched the
plot earlier to drive away rattlesnakes, and ash was everywhere. Aside
from the sweaty field hands and a couple of rooftops glinting through a
distant windbreak, the yellow plains extending to all horizons seemed
devoid of life. It was hard to imagine anyone invading Mapiricure.

The Karinas' story is the tale of all Native Americans in miniature.
One of the first indigenous people encountered by Christopher Columbus,
the tribe was feared for its belligerence; it fought the Spanish for
more than two centuries before being herded onto desolate scrublands
infested with insects. (Mapiricure, population about 400, means "Place of
the Mosquitoes.") Since then, their numbers have plummeted through
assimilation. They have lost most of their tribal lands to scheming cattle
barons. And so poor are their fields that the ragged Indian farmers ended
up digging holes and selling their soil as sand.

From 2003 onward, however, the typical narrative of woe changes
radically. That's when an unlikely savior by the name of PDVSA showed up.

Oil companies are not usually in the business of altruism, but
Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., the state energy firm known by its abbreviation,
PDVSA, isn't your usual oil giant.

Dismantled by Chavez after a crippling worker strike in late 2002 and
early 2003, PDVSA has been reborn as the central engine of Chavez's
socialist revolution. The strongman fired 19,000 employees and replaced
them with party loyalists. And now the company is spending $8 billion of
its annual profits on social programs: a staggering $310 worth of
assistance for every man, woman and child in Venezuela.

"This is a good way to run an oil company into the ground," said a
skeptical Michelle Billig, an analyst with PIRA Energy Group in Washington.
"On the other hand, if leaders in places like Nigeria, Angola and even
Iraq ever tried a bit of this, we probably wouldn't be hearing so much
about instability in their countries."

PDVSA's insignia is a substitute flag in the oil zones. The company's
red-blue-and-yellow logo appears on baseball caps, T-shirts, walls,
cars, billboards, clinic entrances and TV commercials. In backwaters like
Mapiricure, the company is the only institution that actually works. It
bought villagers a school bus, sponsors scholarships, pays for
eyeglasses and funds a program to rescue the Indians' fading language. About
the only items lacking PDVSA's distinctive emblem in Mapiricure are the
sleepy donkeys.

"We're in our hour of glory," concluded Angel Cedeno, the manager of
the local oil-subsidized food store. "We can eat more than iguanas."

It was night on the savanna. Villagers swayed in hand-woven hammocks
strung on their hut verandas. Cedeno sat with Barroso, the garrulous
village elder, who was still smudged with ash. (The unprofitable yucca
harvest was oil-subsidized too.) Both men recalled how, in the past,
Venezuela's politicians discovered remote Mapiricure only once a year--on
election day.

"They'd show up with trucks full of rum," Barroso said, laughing. "We'd
get drunk as fish in water. Then they'd drive us into town to vote, and
we'd wake up the next day like animals in the gutters."


Cheap booze kept Mike Trager rolling.

Perhaps half of his pickups were at neighborhood bars like Carol's
Place or Diamond Jims or The Martini Room.

"We move a lot of people around who are loaded," Trager said, steering
his van to his third bar call of the day. "They lose their licenses,
and we get them home. There are hundreds of them in my zone."

Cheap gas also helped. It makes suburban bus service pointless. The
strange upshot: Though he zips by $1.5 million homes and fancy malls, most
of Trager's fares are working-class drinkers, eccentrics and seniors--a
carless underclass navigating suburbia in expensive cabs.

There was "Hillbilly," an Elgin barfly who once fell off a bridge and
was fished, drunk, out of the Fox River. There was "Talking Lady," a
retiree Trager frequently took shopping. She stepped into his cab in
midsentence and still was chattering when Trager closed her apartment door.
And then there was "49er."

"I spend $250 a week on taxis," he said, climbing into the cab at a
lumberyard in the booming exurb of Gilberts. "That's a lot of beer."

He is a burly construction laborer with hands like chopping blocks and
a brushy black beard. He wore muddy jeans tucked into his boot-tops and
a sombrero clamped down on his head. He resembled a crazed refugee from
the Gold Rush.

"Why worry about oil?" he retorted when Trager broached the topic of
gas prices. "Canada's got them in tar sands, right? There's enough energy
up there to last us lifetimes. We can say adios to Saudi Arabia."

A few minutes later the big man started speaking to himself in
high-pitched cartoon voices. Then he asked Trager to stop at a liquor store,
where he bought 6 pints of gin.


Venezuela may harbor the richest oil prize on the planet.

Some geologists believe the Orinoco Belt, an ancient layer of sand
buried under the country's swampy eastern plains, holds up to 300 billion
barrels of recoverable crude. That's another Saudi Arabia.

To peak oil skeptics, this gargantuan deposit, which the U.S.
Geological Survey giddily calls "the largest single hydrocarbon accumulation in
the world," alleviates fears of declining crude supplies for decades.
To Hugo Chavez it's the ultimate political carrot--and club.

"The oil from the belt won't be for Mr. Danger," Chavez declared in a
typically pugnacious speech last year, referring to Bush with a pet
insult. "In the first place oil will be for the Venezuelan people, and then
the people of Latin America and the Caribbean."

Trouble is, almost all of the crude is "gunk"--jet-black tars that are
difficult to extract from the ground and expensive to process. Canada
also possesses enormous reserves of this sticky, molasses-like
substance. And while heavy oils are indeed being looked at closely--along with
crop-based ethanols--as a sort of last call for hydrocarbons,
uncertainties still dog their viability as alternative fuels.

In Canada, for instance, oil companies must use huge volumes of
valuable fresh water to steam-blast the syrupy goo out of the ground. The
landscape is strip-mined. And the fuel needed to heat the steam, Canada's
once-abundant natural gas supply, has already peaked. Now tar-sands
companies are talking of building nuclear plants nearby to help power the
oil mining effort.

"People like to think technology will always rescue them," said Rep.
Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), a senior member of the House Science Committee.
"But if it still ends up taking two barrels [worth of oil energy] to
pump a barrel out of ground, you're in a losing game."

Heavy crudes might help delay a global peak oil crisis, Bartlett added,
but not for long. He noted that even with a fast-track program, Canada
might squeeze 5 million barrels a day from its tar sands by 2025. But
by then, the world's daily oil appetite may have swollen by 40 million

In Venezuela, there are other imponderables. Like a new cold war in the


Ramon Barroso wanted to show how revolutionaries stick together. So he
jumped into a dented-up Ford F-100 pickup, loaded its bed with a passel
of village kids and drove over the lumpy plains to an orchard outside

The young trees were cashews. And they were dying, their leaves curling
in the hot prairie winds. But that didn't concern Barroso. He was
interested in symbols.

"Our Chinese comrades planted this for us," he said proudly, referring
to the China National Petroleum Corporation, which maintains the
surrounding oil fields. "It's a gift from our brothers in Beijing."

Or rather a set piece for today's untenable oil politics: As it turned
out, Mike Trager obtained his gas fix not only from a hostile
government that recently bought 100,000 Russian assault rifles to defend itself
from an imagined U.S. invasion, but his fuel came from a remote oil
patch serviced by his nation's biggest energy-consuming rivals, the

"America and China are on a collision course over what remains of the
world's hydrocarbons," said Gal Luft, a China expert with the Institute
for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington. "The 21st Century is
going to be defined by this aggressive competition for a resource
that's depleting."

Cushioned for the moment in their oil-soaked lifestyle, most Americans
have little idea how surging energy demand in China is reshaping the
future, Luft said.

Optimists see opportunities for cooperation. With China's richest
billionaire a solar energy mogul and Beijing's zeal to convert coal to
liquid fuels, the country may actually help pull the rest of the world into
a post-oil economy.

But in the short term, most experts see an ominous energy cold war
shaping up.

China's gross domestic product is growing at 10 percent, and its car
fleet is expected to outnumber America's by 2030. Its budding oil
appetite already has helped push crude prices to historic highs. Scouring the
world for oil, Chinese companies have plucked the low-hanging fruit:
smaller African petro-states and pariah nations like Iran. Now they're
moving into traditional U.S. energy turf: Canada, the Middle East and
Latin America.

The single-mindedness of its quest can be unsettling. In Sudan, one
Chinese contractor worked almost around the clock, erecting a 1,000-mile
export pipeline in just 11 months. According to the Sudanese government,
the workers who died on the job were simply cremated on the spot.

In Venezuela, Chavez is pushing hard to make 1.3 billion Chinese his
main customers. This year he hopes to double oil exports to Beijing to
300,000 barrels a day. Chinese rig operators in rough haircuts and blue
coveralls stride about oil towns like Anaco, popping into Chinese
restaurants that have mushroomed since the late 1990s.

In backwater Mapiricure, Chinese engineers show up in white SUVs to
inspect the latest pipeline leaks. So far the spills have been minor. The
Karinas poke sticks into the crude puddled around the wellheads and
keep their peace. Nobody wants to disrupt Venezuela's tar-colored gravy

"We'll support Chavez until he behaves badly, then we'll kick him out,"
said Cedeno, the village store owner. "Right now, he's looking out for

The sun was setting.

A boy rode a horse down the three-block main street. Bats flicked
through the mango trees. And a small crowd gathered on Cedeno's porch for a
weekly ritual: the reading of Chavez's 1999 populist constitution.
PDVSA, the national oil company, sponsors the readings through its
ubiquitous social programs.

Alcides Barroso, a scarred oil worker and Ramon's older brother, did
the honors.

"Let's go straight to the articles on Indian land rights," Alcides said
with relish, wearing his wife's reading glasses. A 40-watt light bulb
burned overhead and moths swarmed like electrons. He read laboriously,
reverently, into the night, stumbling over words such as "unalienable."
Nobody stirred.

Given the long Indian history with treaties, the scene was hard to
watch. The faith seemed misplaced. Like it did at the opposite end of the
energy trail in South Elgin, another oil-based utopia.


Michelle Vargo finally left the South Elgin Marathon.

The heart and soul of the gas station, she'd had enough. Prairie State
Enterprises, the station's owner, was unhappy with the low profit
margins. But they valued her ability to train new staff. So they transferred
her 19 miles away to a new Marathon in Aurora--the latest addition to
the 127,000 homely energy outlets that keep America's wheeled
civilization alive.

"I'm a half-hour closer to home," Vargo said with a sigh. "At least now
my fuel bills won't drag me down."

She was at a modest turning point in her manic life. Pressed for money,
she had sent one of her daughters to live with her loathed ex. She gave
away her pet iguana to a bar. She even traded in her big Suburban for a
zippy 2005 Mustang, gaining her a few extra miles per gallon. But she
remains constant to Roy Draino. The crusty furnace cleaner and his gas
station bride finally married in a public park in Lockport.

Marta Perez, the loyal South Elgin Marathon clerk, didn't quit when
Vargo left. She needed the job. As for night clerk Cruz Rodriguez, he was
later arrested on charges of beating fellow employee and girlfriend
Kelly Hanson. ("He got the worst of it," she said brassily.) He sold his
gas-gulping Jeep to pay attorney's bills. His long-anticipated
reconciliation with his brother stalled.

All the while at the South Elgin Marathon, the tanker trucks come and
go, disgorging their liquid tales into the ground. There was more Qua
Iboe but no Basrah Light. There was a steady flow of Louisiana crudes and
only a trickle of Sahara Blend from Algeria. As usual, the fuel's
stories went unheard. They were expelled from countless tailpipes. And if
peak oil theorists are right, and the Marathon survives its 35-year
structural life span, then it will be among the last filling stations
dispensing gasoline in the world.

"I really think the president should do something about this gas
problem," cabbie Mike Trager said. But he couldn't suggest what.

He burned his Venezuelan molecules until midnight, picking up more
drunks, a Bible college student, a professional chef, a kid whose knuckles
were bandaged as if from a fistfight, a bartender, an elegantly dressed
woman who took him all the beautiful way to Vernon Hills--26 miles, $88
with the tip.

"So," he asked them all, "where we goin'?"
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

07 July 2008, 05:39 PM

"Expensive oil is going to transform the American culture as radically as cheap oil did," predicts David Mogavero, a Sacramento-based architect and smart-growth proponent...the housing downturn is hurting the places that have the "dumbest growth. Smart growth works when the rest of it doesn't."

11 July 2008, 03:06 PM
Thieves drive off with 350 gallons of gas in Dallas
01:58 PM CDT on Friday, July 11, 2008
By BRIAN WHITLEY / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas police are investigating the high-tech theft of at least $1,200 in gasoline from a Shell station in the White Rock area.

After the station closed, someone activated a gas pump about 12:30 a.m. Thursday using an electronic device, police said. Then a parade of 15 cars pumped gas one after another until about 350 gallons had been taken.


11 July 2008, 06:05 PM
Now would be a great time to make a new Mad Max film. Wonder what Mel is up to these days.