From Nigeria to your gas station

Paul Salopek deserves a medal. A few months ago, the Chicago Tribune reporter asked a simple but vitally important question: Where does the fuel from your local gas station actually come from? He was told by the oil industry that it would be impossible to trace the voyage – from ground crude oil to refinery ...

607640_Gaspump5.jpg
607640_Gaspump5.jpg

Paul Salopek deserves a medal. A few months ago, the Chicago Tribune reporter asked a simple but vitally important question: Where does the fuel from your local gas station actually come from? He was told by the oil industry that it would be impossible to trace the voyage - from ground crude oil to refinery to gas in your tank. But then Marathon Petroleum allowed him access to its shipment data for a downstate Illinois refinery, and Salopek volunteered for several months as a clerk in a suburban Chicago gas station that gets its gas from that refinery. He also traveled to several continents to find the refinery's oil sources - and to speak with the men who suck the crude from the earth. The result? 

$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. 

Salopek talks to everyone: the people who extract, who ship, who sell, who buy, who profit enormously, and who stay awake at night worrying about the taps running dry. On top of that, the piece is full of brilliant tidbits of information:

Paul Salopek deserves a medal. A few months ago, the Chicago Tribune reporter asked a simple but vitally important question: Where does the fuel from your local gas station actually come from? He was told by the oil industry that it would be impossible to trace the voyage – from ground crude oil to refinery to gas in your tank. But then Marathon Petroleum allowed him access to its shipment data for a downstate Illinois refinery, and Salopek volunteered for several months as a clerk in a suburban Chicago gas station that gets its gas from that refinery. He also traveled to several continents to find the refinery’s oil sources – and to speak with the men who suck the crude from the earth. The result? 

$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. 

Salopek talks to everyone: the people who extract, who ship, who sell, who buy, who profit enormously, and who stay awake at night worrying about the taps running dry. On top of that, the piece is full of brilliant tidbits of information:

[One] particular night [at the South Elgin gas station], [fuel hauler Howard] 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….

That night, Dunbar’s shipment could be traced to its origins as follows:

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

Read the whole thing. It will make you incredibly uneasy about the state of America’s oil addiction and the dramatic lengths to which we’ll go – and the friends we’ll make – to keep the taps flowing.

Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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