Book review: ‘The Quest’
Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World
Penguin Press: 804 pps., $37.95
Daniel Yergin is our most tenacious and experienced analyst of energy policy — an effort that dates to his co-authorship of the groundbreaking book “Energy Future” in 1979.
In that book, Yergin and his co-authors set forth several themes that remain relevant today, including the potential of solar power and conservation to address shortages of traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels. Since then, Yergin has pressed these themes, most notably in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 history of the oil industry, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.”
Now, some two decades later, Yergin and his large staff of researchers at his consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates have produced a sequel and expansion of “The Prize.” The new book is “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World.” Like its precursor, “The Quest” is an enormous tome, clocking in at 800-plus pages of global sweep and intricate detail. The oil industry per se, however, is only a limited part of the whole; most of the book is devoted more broadly to such topics as the history of our dependence on electricity, whatever its source, and how that dependence is growing; the climate change movement; and renewable fuel technology.
One can’t fault the up-to-date relevance of “The Quest” — it opens with references to both the March earthquake in Japan, which caused the worst nuclear power accident since Chernobyl, and the political upheavals in Egypt and Libya, reminders of the instability of the region that produces an indispensable portion of the world’s oil supply.
The book then takes us on an exploration of the energy industry and its history, touching down in so many remote corners of the globe, filled with such a huge cast of sinister business magnates, visionary scientists, political scoundrels and con men that it sometimes reads like a novel by Thomas Pynchon (I mean that as praise).
Among my favorites are Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB official who returned to his native Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union’s collapse to develop his country’s oil riches and exploit them for political gain. One also meets John Tyndall, whose encounter with a Swiss glacier in 1849 gave birth to the science of climate; Willis Carrier, whose invention of air conditioning enabled industrial development and population migration to the Sun Belt (not to mention tropical climes the world over) and yoked the world to year-round electrical demand; and M. King Hubbert, father of the theory of peak oil, which holds that U.S. oil production, indeed that of the entire world, is on an inexorable down slope.
Yet for all its sheer size, “The Quest” addresses a topic that’s even larger. As a result, the book sometimes reads as a once-over-lightly treatment of its subject matter. Last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico gets seven pages, which is a comparatively large chunk to be devoted to a single incident in this sprawling book. But it deserves much more, considering how much that accident tells us about the dangers of novel underwater oil-production technologies, the offshore oil industry’s willingness to cut corners in the headlong quest for supply, and the continuing laxness of regulation that tells us that more such disasters lie in store. Much more is known today about the Deepwater Horizon episode than makes it into “The Quest,” but Yergin doesn’t stop to explore much about the implications of the event before hurrying on to the next topic.
A sense of how much more he could have said comes from his treatment of climate change, perhaps the most complete and illuminating portion of the book. “The Quest” not only details the origins of climate science but it also explores how the movement to address this crisis has been afflicted by domestic politics, regional rivalries and fundamental economic imperatives.
And what of the future? It’s plain from “The Quest” that Yergin’s view on peak oil, which he cited as a major concern in “Energy Future,” has evolved. Yergin observes that forecasts of the peak of U.S. domestic production have been repeatedly pushed into the future — output is four times higher than a prediction Hubbert made in 1971. Technological progress and price account for the difference, Yergin says. These factors have combined to yield far more oil, from heretofore unexpected sources, than Hubbert or anyone else anticipated a few decades ago. Yergin’s view today is that the world faces not a peak in production but a plateau, “and the world is still, it would seem, many years away from ascending to that plateau.” It’s hard to say whether Yergin’s conclusion is influenced by his role as a consultant to the oil industry, as some of his critics charge, but it certainly lends a different coloration to the urgency of developing alternative energy sources.
Yergin’s views on other issues have not evolved as much. He contends that the potential of conservation is still too widely overlooked, even despite the development of energy-efficient buildings and “smart” electrical grids. His treatment of solar and wind energy is nuanced, showing that they don’t work everywhere or all the time but that taken together they can alleviate demand loads on the traditional electric grid and free up traditional capacity to serve other demands. And he ends the book with the hint that more sequels are to come — what Hollywood would call a cliffhanger: The quest for energy security and stability for a growing world, he concludes, “is a quest that will never end.”
Times business columnist Hiltzik’s latest book is “The New Deal: A Modern History.”
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