He Knows Oil : Daniel Yergin Built a Company and Penned a Best-Selling History


Daniel Yergin, at age 46, doubts that he’d have the stamina to do it over again.

For the last decade, Yergin has toiled on two demanding projects. One reaches a highly visible milestone Monday when the first episode of a public television series based on his best-selling history of the oil industry, “The Prize,” plays to an expected global audience of 100 million people.

In the same 10 years, Yergin, schooled as an academic historian, has built a business begun with a $2 Salvation Army filing cabinet into one of the world’s best-known energy consulting firms.

“I feel like I have two jobs,” Yergin says of his roles as energy analyst and writer. He recalls the early years as the roughest, “working 10 hours a day as an entrepreneur, really, and then writing for five or six hours a day. . . . I don’t think I would have the physical endurance to do it now.”


In 1982, he started the consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates on his dining room table. He also began working on what would become “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power,” a widely praised history of the oil business that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The eight-part Public Broadcasting System series that begins Monday is the first major PBS series on business in more than a decade.

Yergin’s literary sense of show biz has roots in his family. He grew up in Beverly Hills in a house he describes as filled with “mountains of unmade scripts and treatments” written by his father, Irving, a Chicago newspaper reporter in the 1920s and ‘30s.

“He said he covered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” Yergin says. The historian clarifies: “I don’t know whether he did or not.”



Yergin also had an early romance with journalism as a contributing editor to New York magazine. “I even did an article on the introduction of a new frozen pizza to the market,” he recalls.

His father left the newspaper business to work as a personal assistant to Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., then briefly as editor of the Hollywood Reporter trade publication. Naomi Yergin, Yergin’s mother, is a painter and sculptor who recently retired at age 82 as an art teacher in the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills school systems. Actor Peter Lorre was Yergin’s godfather.

A former student-body president at Beverly Hills High, Yergin went on to Yale University to study English, then to Cambridge University in England, where he got another BA in history and finally a Ph.D. He lectured at Harvard University for seven years while writing and editing books on international relations and energy.

Yergin’s “Shattered Peace: Origins of the Cold War,” published in 1977, met with critical acclaim. “Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School,” which he co-authored in 1979, caused a considerable stir with its optimistic view of the possibilities of energy conservation and such alternative sources as solar power.

At the same time, he wrote papers, served on academic and governmental panels and made many appearances on TV programs.

But “The Prize,” which came out in 1991, put him over the top as a public figure. An international best seller, particularly in Japan and Europe, more than 370,000 copies have been sold in the United States.

At the core of this sweeping look at the petroleum business is a conviction, based on powerful evidence, that oil has been a much more potent historical factor than is widely appreciated. Oil will continue to play a crucial role in world affairs, despite a growing push toward alternative, less-polluting fuels.

“There’s going to be technological change and breakthrough and innovation,” Yergin says, “and this is going to be pushed more in the years ahead than it has been in the past.”


Yergin says the oil industry itself is attempting to be innovative by developing reformulated, “green” gasolines, which burn cleaner than the conventional product.


“It’s going to be expensive and it’s going to be painful,” Yergin predicts, “but this industry is going to adapt to the environmental era. People aren’t going to give up mobility.”

As he wrote “The Prize,” Yergin, research director Joseph Stanislaw and commercial manager James Rosenfield were building Cambridge Energy Research Associates as a quasi think-tank and source of energy industry analysis. In the industry, such CERA publications as Natural Gas Trends and World Oil Trends have become standard references.

CERA has also become multinational. Almost half its business is outside North America, and it now has offices in Cambridge, Mass., Washington, D.C., Oakland, Paris and Oslo.

And in an industry that is both chaotic and highly competitive, CERA has developed an unusual reputation among energy industry leaders and environmentalists alike for well-informed, impartial analysis.

“I think Yergin is a balanced, honest guy who tells it the way he sees it,” says Arthur Wiese, a vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade association. “He is not committed either to the energy industry or any other cause to the detriment of his judgment--and I say that as a non-client.”

Yergin himself says he has learned much about business from building a company, as well as writing about the oil industry.


“I think I understand entrepreneurial risk,” Yergin says. “People think that these tycoons, or would-be tycoons . . . were in control of events, knew what was going to happen, knew the future. Of course, every day you make decisions, and you have no idea if it’s the right decision or not. . . . It was something that struck me personally.”

Cambridge Energy Research Associates at a Glance

An independent international consulting and research firm specializing in oil, natural gas, electricity and other energy markets. Formed in 1982 with three associates.

* Clients: Oil and natural gas producers, refiners and marketers; national and state governments; international organizations; tanker and transportation companies; utilities; pension fund managers; financial institutions; energy consumers; regulatory agencies; high-technology service firms.

* Offices: Cambridge, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; Oakland, Calif.; Paris, France; Oslo, Norway.

* Employees: 85, including experts on market fundamentals, geopolitics, technology, economics, organizational design, strategic planning.

* Revenue: As a privately held corporation, CERA does not disclose. But 1992 sales were in the $10-million to $15-million range.