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
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
"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
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
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
SUGGEST A PRODUCT OR SERVICE."
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.