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Originally published Friday, October 14, 2011 at 5:31 AM

Book review

'The Quest': Daniel Yergin on oil's future

Daniel Yergin's "The Quest" takes up where his magisterial history of the oil industry, "The Prize," left off, as it looks at the world's thirst for energy, present and future. Yergin discusses his book Monday, Oct. 17, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Daniel Yergin

The author of "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5, tickets are available at the door starting at 6:30 p.m. or in advance (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
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In 1991, Daniel Yergin wrote "The Prize," an epic about the birth and development of the global oil industry. Yergin spent the next 20 years molding himself into arguably the nation's most influential Big Thinker about oil and energy policy; he's poured seemingly everything he's learned in that time into the 800-plus pages of his newest book, "The Quest" (Penguin Press, 804 pp., $37.95).

"The Quest" picks up where "The Prize" ended, with Saddam Hussein's Iraq invading Kuwait and the United States gathering a coalition to boot him out. But while in many ways a sequel, "The Quest" is a very different kind of book. "The Prize" was a grand, sweeping work of narrative history; "The Quest" is more of a briefing book — a comprehensive overview of our relentless thirst for energy, present and future.

It's not, I must say, always the most compelling reading: There are stretches, particularly in the first couple hundred pages, that read like fleshed-out PowerPoint slides or lecture notes. And Yergin occasionally slips into regrettable consultant-speak, as when he refers to growing recognition of the importance of conservation as "a 'C-change' in attitudes."

But Yergin's knowledge of how the global energy system works — how, for instance, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 sparked a spate of mega-mergers among major oil companies — is matchless, and he methodically leads the reader on what amounts to a guided tour of that system.

For much of the way, "energy" essentially means oil. Yergin fully expects that oil will continue to be the world's key source of energy for at least the next two decades. From the Central Asian steppes to the plains of Alberta, from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to, inevitably, the sands of the Middle East, Yergin examines how new oil fields have been discovered and innovative technologies have brought previously inaccessible reserves into production.

Along the way, Yergin explains why gasoline prices spiked in the middle of the past decade and are unlikely to go down again soon (the short answer: soaring demand from China and other developing nations, not some oil-company conspiracy) and dismisses "peak oil" theories as unduly static. As he notes, people also thought the world was running short of oil in the 1880s, 1920s, 1940s and 1970s; each new set of theories presumed "limited technological innovation and that economics does not really matter."

In a way, Yergin's book is as much about innovation as it is about energy. Just as technological advances have enabled oil producers to push the theoretical "peak" further and further out, they have brought renewable energy sources such as wind and solar in from the fringes of the global energy system — though, as he makes clear, those technologies are still nowhere near ready to take over from oil, coal and other fossil fuels.

Indeed, Yergin writes, using energy more efficiently has the biggest near-term potential to stretch our resources. We've already seen that happen: In June 2008, U.S. oil demand was a million barrels less than in June 2007, as consumers responded to soaring gasoline prices by driving less and parking their SUVs. Deliberate efforts to boost efficiency by governments, businesses and individuals, he says, could have an even greater impact (Boeing's new 787 jet has a walk-on role here).

But despite its promise, Yergin says, efficiency has two big disadvantages: It doesn't have a large, vocal constituency behind it, and it's intangible. As European Union energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs ruefully told Yergin: "There's no red ribbon to cut. It's very important to be able to cut a red ribbon."

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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