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Thread: A tankful of gas, a world full of trouble

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    A tankful of gas, a world full of trouble

    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
    hardwood.

    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
    issues.

    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
    cigarettes.

    "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
    peak.

    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
    reckoning.

    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
    houses.

    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
    it."

    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
    consume.

    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
    pumps.

    "$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.

  2. #2
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    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
    War.

    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
    Thanksgiving."

    "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
    thuggery.

    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
    generals.

    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
    $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
    River.

    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
    ahead.

    "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
    rink."

    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
    unprecedented."

    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
    in.

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

    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.

  3. #3
    Some guy
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    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
    smuggling.

    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
    Terminal.

    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
    spring.

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

    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
    one.

    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
    heartbeats.

    *** 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
    economy."

    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
    up.

    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
    disappeared.

    ***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
    petroleum.)

    "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
    else."

    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
    wallet."

    "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
    movement.

    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.

  4. #4
    Some guy
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    Sep 2005
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    Chapter 4: Last call

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

    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
    power.

    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
    "donkey."

    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
    barrels.

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

    ***

    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
    Mapiricure.

    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
    Chinese.

    "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
    train.

    "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
    us."

    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

  5. #5
    Lakewooder Lakewooder's Avatar
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    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1215...hps_us_pageone

    "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."

  6. #6
    Administrator dfwcre8tive's Avatar
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    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
    bwhitley@dallasnews.com
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcont....45b8908f.html

    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.

    ...

  7. #7
    Skyscraper Member Spjz's Avatar
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    Now would be a great time to make a new Mad Max film. Wonder what Mel is up to these days.

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