September 16, 2011 10:03 pm

The Quest

Daniel Yergin’s guide to the essentials of energy in the 21st century is another triumph

Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, first published in 1991, is a masterpiece; one of the few books that can truly be said to be essential reading for anyone hoping to understand international politics.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning epic history of the oil industry from the first well in Pennsylvania in 1859 to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it is awe-inspiring in its range and thrilling in its narrative drive. More than simply an industrial chronicle, it works as a secret history of the 20th century, revealing how often oil – the presence of it or the lack of it – has been a decisive factor in world affairs.

Yet in the two decades since The Prize, a series of events has transformed the world of energy: the break-up of the Soviet Union, the rise of China, the 9/11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the emergence of climate change as a policy issue. It is a cause for celebration that Yergin has returned with his perspective on a very different landscape. If The Quest does not quite reach the heights attained by its predecessor, it is, nonetheless, another piece of required reading.

The new book covers a shorter time period but a broader field. It begins exactly where The Prize left off, with Iraqi forces in Kuwait and the disintegration of the Soviet Union about to become visible. The first 341 pages continue the story of oil and gas up to the present, with references to the June 2011 Opec meeting and the upheavals of the Arab spring.

Thereafter, the approach changes. Yergin rewinds the tape, going back into the past several times to tell the stories of other aspects of energy: electricity generation, the debate over climate change, renewable power and the chequered history of the electric car. The effect is to make The Quest feel like four or five books in one, without the linear narrative thrust of The Prize. If the earlier book was novelistic, The Quest is more like a handbook or primer.

That said, it is impossible to think of a better introduction to the essentials of energy in the 21st century. In Yergin’s lucid, easy prose, the 800 pages flow freely. There are some vivid character sketches, such as Marion King Hubbert, the brilliant, abrasive originator of the theory of Peak Oil: the idea that the world is at or close to the maximum rate of oil production it will ever reach.

There are also many wonderfully revealing observations and anecdotes, such as John Prescott, then Britain’s deputy prime minister and chief European negotiator at the 1997 Kyoto climate conference, being beaten down by his US counterpart to accept cap-and-trade as the sole global instrument for controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

It is fascinating to learn that the first Model T Fords could run on ethanol and that Thomas Edison in 1910 had offered a battery that promised to power a car for 60 miles from a single charge – performance that looks remarkable compared with the 35 all-electric miles offered by the Chevy Volt (which also has a back-up petrol-powered generator) in showrooms today.

Above all, the value of The Quest is in the clarity and fair-mindedness of Yergin’s thought. On the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, he makes in a couple of pages the clearest and most persuasive case I have seen – certainly more plausible than anything offered by the war’s apologists at the time – for why it might have been a difficult but unavoidable strategic necessity. He then, with equally economical precision, sets out the hubris and lack of planning that doomed Iraq to the tragedy that followed.

On climate change, he properly recognises the complexity of the science, while leaving the reader in no doubt about the weight of scientific opinion.

Yergin has a point of view: he is an admirer and supporter of the oil and gas industry. (He is also a consultant to it through Cambridge Energy Research Associates, his highly successful advisory firm, now part of the IHS group.) His verdicts often echo what one might call enlightened oil industry opinion: he is incredulous of Peak Oil theory and certain that fossil fuels will play the central role in our energy system for decades to come.

He is excited about the potential of shale gas, produced from rocks that were previously uneconomic by the use of the controversial practice of “fracking” – injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock a mile down to fracture it and release the gas – although he acknowledges there is likely to be “much argument” about the safety and regulation of the industry. He recently served on a US government advisory panel that recommended fracking should be allowed to continue, albeit with tighter safety standards from the industry.

Yet while his views on all of these points can be challenged, and no doubt will be, his judgments are hard to refute. Yergin has been criticised for being excessively harsh about Hugo Chávez, the demagogic and increasingly autocratic president of Venezuela. From an oil expert’s perspective, however, seeing the wreck that Chávez’s policies have made of that country’s once-dynamic industry, it must be particularly difficult to avoid being angered and saddened by his record in office.

As the presses rolled, the world of energy was, inevitably, still in flux. The consequences of the Arab uprising are still unfolding, the backlash against environmental and other regulations in the US is gathering pace, and China’s commitment to “clean” energy, such as wind and solar power and electric cars, may be wavering. Yergin ends his discussion of many topics with the honest but frustrating observation that it is “too early” to know how they will turn out. Dated as soon as it hits the shelves, The Quest is, nonetheless, the definitive guide to how we got here.

The Prize has acquired totemic status among those who work in and follow the energy industry. New reporters starting out on the beat are given copies by their seasoned colleagues, like infantrymen being presented with Bibles before going to the front.

It is hard to see The Quest being loved in quite the same way. Yet it is sure to prove every bit as valuable.

Ed Crooks is the FT’s US industry and energy editor

The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 816 pages

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