Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Power Politics

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin (Penguin, 816 pp., $37.95)

Daniel Yergin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for The Prize, his monumental, 700-page history of the world oil market. Judging from the size and scope of the sequel, he must be shooting for the Nobel Prize this time: The 800-page volume covers just about everything that happened in the past 100 years relating to energy, and then some.

Often he wanders rather far afield. We get a long narrative of the 1991 Gulf War, a rehearsal of the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even an account of how John von Neumann first conceived his computer. There are also innumerable detailed accounts of conferences and top-drawer meetings Yergin has attended. As founder of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, he regularly sponsors huge international conferences and is very much a player in the fields he describes.

The outcome is a long, somewhat tedious slog through the labyrinthine world of energy. Some of the material has the feeling of having been written 20 years ago and stashed in a drawer somewhere until the day arrived to write the Big Book. Other passages are mysteriously transcribed accounts of confidential meetings of the world’s great energy players, not all of them of great interest. The saving grace is that, unlike the insufferable Thomas Friedman, Yergin at least refrains from thrusting himself into the narrative.

As a result, The Quest is chock-full of good anecdotes and valuable information. Yet somehow it remains unsatisfying. Although Yergin seems to know everything about energy, he doesn’t seem to have an opinion on anything. Oil, gas, coal, wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear — all are paraded before us as an endless stream of alternatives that may or may not see their day in the sun. Nowhere does he confront any choices. But maybe that’s the consultant’s role, assuring clients that on one hand this new technology could change the world while on the other it could be a bust. It’s up to you whether to invest.

Only in the last seven pages does Yergin finally attempt something of an overview. It is at that point that his words begin to take on weight:

History demonstrates that energy transitions take a long time. It took almost a century before oil overtook coal as the number one energy source. . . . It’s . . . that fundamental rule of the energy world — the law of long lead times. The energy system is large and complex and has an enormous amount of embedded capital. . . . By 2030, global energy consumption may be 35 or 40 percent greater than it is today, with virtually all the growth in the developing world. [Yet t]he mix will probably not be too different from what it is today. 

Good advice to people such as the officials in the Obama administration, who think they can remake the world overnight.

The one issue on which Yergin sets himself against the collective wisdom is peak oil. M. King Hubbert, the legendary Shell geologist who accurately predicted America’s 1970 peak output, was actually a pretty cantankerous guy who was right on one thing but wrong on almost everything else. He predicted that America would be producing only 1.5 million barrels in 2010; we actually hit 5.5. Besides, people have been predicting the end of oil since the first well was drilled in 1859. They’ve always been wrong. As traditional Texas wells have played out, offshore drilling and the new technology of hydrofracking have moved in to take their place. “By 2030,” writes Yergin, “these nontraditional liquids could add up to a third of total liquids capacity. By then, however, most of these unconventional oils will have a new name. They will all be called conventional.” He continues:

The world has produced about 1 trillion barrels of oil since the start of the industry in the 19th century. Currently, it is thought that there are at least 5 trillion barrels of petroleum resources, of which 1.4 trillion is sufficiently developed and technically and economically accessible to count as proved plus probable reserves. . . . It appears the world liquid production capacity should grow from about 93 million barrels per day in 2010 to about 110 mbd by 2030, . . . a 20 percent increase. . . . The conclusion is that the world is clearly not running out of oil. Far from it. The estimates for the world’s total stock of oil keep growing.

#page#That’s the biggest of big pictures, and good to know. As for the rest of the book, its appeal lies in its interesting compendium of memorable anecdotes and stray facts. For instance:

  • When planning the original global-warming hearing in January 1988, Sen. Timothy Wirth of Colorado decided it would be best to hold it on the hottest days of the year. Seeking advice at Harvard, then the center of climate research, his staff ended up talking to an economics professor who suggested they look in the Farmer’s Almanac. Wirth finally settled on late June, which turned out to be a good guess. When the hearings began, Washington was in the midst of a heat wave. Just to be sure, the staff turned off the air conditioning and left the windows open. The result was a memorable spectacle of senators and witnesses sweltering before the television cameras while James Hansen, the maverick NASA scientist, warned them that carbon emissions would soon be roasting the planet. The world has not stopped talking about global warming since.


  • In the 1990s, the investment tax credits for putting up windmills were so great that you could make money even if they never produced a kilowatt. Many early windmills did exactly that, breaking down almost as soon as they were put into action. Still, they remained profitable. Until its collapse, Enron was the biggest owner of windmills in the country.


  • The most enthusiastically received speaker at the 1992 Rio Conference, the first great international assemblage on global warming, was Fidel Castro, who whipped himself and his audience into a fury over the evils that capitalism does to the environment.


  • A. Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist who provided North Korea and Iran with the technology to build nuclear weapons, used to hold conferences in Islamabad and even took promotional booths at military trade shows to advertise his wares. On the eve of the Gulf War, he offered Saddam Hussein the stolen technology, but Saddam, suspecting a sting, turned him down.


  • In the late 1950s, Betty Friedan wrote a magazine article warning about “The Coming Ice Age.”


  • In 1978, a young energy researcher in Cambridge, Mass. (probably Yergin himself), received an unexpected phone call from Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy. “Wood — fuel of the future. Wood!” barked the unceremonious Rickover, and hung up.


  • When James Hansen introduced global warming to the public in 1988, one of his strongest recommendations was to build more nuclear reactors.


  • Shortly after President Carter pushed through the 40 cents–per–gallon tax credit for ethanol in 1978, the Department of Energy predicted that the U.S. could get 100 percent of its transportation fuel from corn by 2000. Carter later placed a 40 cents–per–gallon tariff on foreign ethanol to insulate American farmers from competition. Both tariff and tax credit are still with us, and putting ethanol into our gas tanks has now surpassed making animal fodder as the principal use of America’s corn crop.

As interesting as these stories may be, The Quest remains a frustrating narrative. Yergin can recount the entire 2000–01 California electrical shortage, for example, without ever mentioning that Jerry Brown decided in 1980 that the state would build no more power plants. Instead, California approved only small industrial co-generators plus a menagerie of windmills, miniature hydroelectric dams, and methane-from-garbage plants that deliver 1 megawatt of electricity. (The average coal or nuclear plant produces 1,000 MW.) Yergin simply praises Brown for doing “as much as any single person for launching wind” by “[making] the investment almost risk-free.” Mercifully, he does spare us the myth that Enron caused the whole thing by manipulating the market. By the time Ken Lay’s boys started chiseling customers, he says, “the system was already broken.”

It is this sublime indifference to market forces, and even physical reality, that leaves The Quest inhabiting an amorphous no man’s land. Does solar, coal, or nuclear have any distinct or unreproducible advantages? Or is solving our energy problems just a matter of finding the right government policies? If 450-foot windmills take up 50 to 100 square miles to produce electricity available only when the wind blows, is that an insurmountable disadvantage or only a challenge for the policymakers to overcome? There’s never any acknowledgement of the absurdity of trying to run a 21st-century economy with an essentially medieval technology.

As an exhaustive history of our energy situation, then, The Quest does a heroic job of marshaling the facts and parading them all out for our inspection. For an incisive analysis of where we’ve made our mistakes and where we should be going, however, you’d be better off reading Chris Horner’s contributions on National Review Online.

– Mr. Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.

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