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.