A Rich History and a Strange Reticence


BY DANIEL YERGIN, Penguin Press, 804 pages, $37.95

In the 1950s, a cantankerous earth scientist named Marion King Hubbert rose to prominence at Shell Oil and later at the U.S. Geological Survey. Hubbert was an unforgettable human being -- one colleague called him "the most difficult person I ever worked with" -- who loathed politicians and economists, looked forward to the collapse of American democracy, and thought technocrats such as himself should rule the world. He was also undeniably brilliant.

In 1957, Hubbert published a seminal paper on the mechanics of hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technology now being used to tap vast, previously unreachable deposits of natural gas trapped in shale formations, especially beneath Texas, Oklahoma, the mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast. A year before, happily playing the skunk at the picnic of an American Petroleum Institute meeting in San Antonio, he delivered a speech predicting that U.S. oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970. When "Hubbert's Peak" seemed to come true in 1970 -- followed, three years later, by the crippling Arab oil embargo -- the cranky old geologist was celebrated as a prophet. By 1978, Hubbert was warning that those born in 1965 would live to see every drop of the world's oil used up as civilization entered "a period of non-growth."

Hubbert's story is one of the many revealing mini-biographies that salt The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, Daniel Yergin's follow-up to his magisterial 1991 history of oil, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (which received a prize itself, the Pulitzer). Besides writing or co-authoring six other books, Yergin is also the co-founder and chair of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a leading consultancy to energy companies, governments, and financial institutions. What The Prize did for petroleum, demonstrating how mankind's thirst for the stuff has driven much of modern history, this book attempts to do for the entire energy system.

In fashioning a cautionary tale out of Hubbert, Yergin wants to show that when it comes to energy supply, galloping innovation and insatiable demand have a way of turning the best predictions into yesterday's porridge. Today, Yergin writes, U.S. oil production is four times higher than Hubbert estimated it would be, and "proved plus probable" global reserves, by the author's estimate, stand at 1.4 trillion barrels, or 40 percent more than all the oil that has been pumped and burned since the industry's 19th-century origin. Where Hubbert saw a peak -- oil production as a bell-shaped curve that would fall as it had risen -- Yergin sees a vast plateau, and he notes with evident satisfaction that "the world is still, it would seem, many years away from ascending to that plateau."

I'll leave it to others to dispute Yergin's oil-reserve estimates, because the heart of his narrative is the dawning realization that burning those 1.4 trillion barrels would be a very, very bad idea. The author has expanded and updated The Prize's great theme to show not only how the quest for energy has propelled civilization -- making great prosperity possible, inspiring technological innovation and inciting war, stoking ambition, and amassing personal fortunes -- but how it has also, inconveniently for all concerned, thrown the global climate system into a dangerous imbalance that if left unchecked, could tip the planet into catastrophe.

Much of the book follows the political, economic, and technological struggles between fossil and renewable fuels -- the rise of an as-yet-unsuccessful global campaign to cap greenhouse-gas emissions, the still-unfolding search for the low-carbon energy sources needed to achieve that goal, the continuing battle between those who seek to accelerate the shift to renewables and those who prefer to maintain the status quo. Along the way, Yergin displays both the propulsive narrative skills that have made him a best-selling author (he studied 19th-century literature as an undergraduate, and it paid off) and the deep knowledge of energy technology, economics, and geopolitics that has made him the world's most influential energy pundit.

There is great pleasure to be had in sitting at Yergin's knee, listening to him tell a long and carefully interwoven tale that travels the world from the United States to China and from Venezuela to Iraq, tours fuel sources of the past, present, and future, and reconsiders headlines from Chernobyl to Deepwater Horizon to Fukushima Daiichi. For this reader, though, who leaned forward in anticipation of hearing the energy expert assess the viability of emerging clean-energy technologies, there is also some disappointment. Yergin often chooses not to make such assessments. The confidence, depth, and show-your-math authority he displays when dismantling Hubbert's peak-oil theory -- saying precisely what he thinks and why -- are often lacking elsewhere in The Quest. It's as if he took Hubbert's story too much to heart.

As he did in The Prize, Yergin keeps his narrative humming while dodging partisan debate. In the earlier book, he declined to take a moral position on the oil barons at the center of his narrative. In his new book, he again hews to a distractingly even-handed approach. Leading us into the heart of the story -- as energy demand rubs up against climate reality -- he becomes a reticent guide, more comfortable explaining what "some say" and "others think" than drawing his own conclusions.

The balancing act begins with his description of climate science itself. Some scientists "warn that mankind is experimenting with the atmosphere in a manner that could irrevocably change the climate in potentially apocalyptic ways," he writes, and "some scientists disagree." The latter, he concedes, "are the minority." As he goes on to add, "some warn that rising carbon levels may already hold out the risk of an 'iceless world,'" while "others say that the bounds of uncertainty are wider, the knowledge of how climate works is far less developed, and fluctuations have always characterized the weather."

He-said, she-said journalism has long been a way for inexpert reporters covering the climate wars to keep their heads below the lip of the foxhole. I didn't expect it from a heavyweight like Yergin, and to his credit, he works through a patient, well-reported history of climatology that explains why the vast majority of scientists who specialize in the field have concluded that industrial emissions are destabilizing our climate. Thanks to his uncanny eye for telling detail, his account of the long, frustrating search for a global climate deal never loses its way.

As Yergin proceeds to consider the costs and scalability of various low -- carbon fuels, however, the ping-pong match between "some" and "others" continues. He often pulls up short right at the moment one expects a conclusion. Partly this is due to the wide bands of uncertainty that surround emerging energy technologies. Yergin's clients, however, pay him to cut through those uncertainties, and I was rooting for him to do so here. Regarding the quest for cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel derived from switchgrass or other nonedible plant sources, he explains the challenge beautifully -- making fuel from "the walls of the plant" -- then adds that "some say it is almost within reach; to others, it remains a major research problem." Yergin doesn't tell us who is right, though he does point out that "many ifs are along the way."

In his discussion of the generating potential of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays on the rooftops of the United States, Europe, and Asia, Yergin writes, "Some of the estimates for growth, and future installed capacity, are very high. Some believe they could be providing a substantial part of the world's electricity by the middle of the twenty-first century." Who offers these estimates? Do they know what they're talking about? Even a dive into Yergin's capacious endnotes doesn't reveal the answers. Instead, Yergin taps Paul Maycock, who ran the federal solar program during the Carter administration, to tell us that "if we reach ten percent of total electricity from PVs by 2050, that will be a great achievement."

On America's enormous new supply of natural gas from shale -- a resource that has the potential to transform our near-term energy landscape if we can learn to tap it safely -- Yergin writes well about the hydraulic-fracturing technology that liberates the fuel from rock formations. He acknowledges the growing environmental concerns that such drilling has engendered, especially over the corruption of water supplies, but he has faith that innovation and the industry's long experience in dealing with such problems will provide the necessary margin of safety. He assures us that hydraulic fracturing is "heavily regulated," though he concedes that "the next few years will see much argument about whether the federal government shall have more responsibility. There will also be much more research on the water issues, and a continuing focus on advancing the technology, both for drilling and for environmental protection." Yergin describes natural gas as a "relatively low-carbon resource," since its combustion releases less carbon dioxide than burning coal. But he scarcely mentions the emerging issue of fugitive methane emissions -- leakage from wellheads and pipelines of a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that could negate some or all of natural gas's carbon advantage over coal.

Though The Quest delivers some deep, nuanced discussions of the current energy debates, Yergin's goals as a storyteller lie elsewhere. He aims to approximate in the reader's mind the sweep of knowledge that resides in his own -- a profound understanding of the almost unimaginable scope of the global energy complex. Again and again, Yergin reminds readers of the enormous difficulty of replacing even a significant fraction of fossil-fuel generations with renewables. He is right to insist on this "recognition of the scale, complexity, and importance of the energy foundations on which a world economy depends." He understands that carbon pricing, renewable-energy standards, and the grants, tax breaks, and other governmental incentives given to renewable-energy producers during the Obama administration are all attempts to help take clean energy to scale. These incentives stimulate industrial activity that would otherwise not take place because of fossil fuels' decisive cost advantage, which a century of subsidies has helped lock into the marketplace.

As a result of President Barack Obama's support for the advanced automotive battery-making industry, Yergin tells us, the United States is expected to command some 40 percent of global capacity by 2015, up from just 2 percent at the start of 2009. With the advent of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, he writes, "a compelling new vision has taken shape: Wind and solar will generate the new supplies of electricity." He adds, "That electricity will then be wheeled long-distance over a much-expanded and modernized transmission system. And ... finally, it will be fed into the battery of an electric car. Some even take the vision further and imagine that cars will act as storage systems, 'roving' batteries which, when idle, will feed electricity back into the grid."

But the oil guy has trouble seeing how the electricity system of today is going to get there. He points again to the daunting issue of scale: Even if electric and plug-in electric vehicles take off, on an optimistic trajectory that would lead them to make up 32 percent of total annual sales by 2030, they would by then only make up about 14 percent of all the cars on the road.

Could that happen? Yergin can't say. "It is simply too early to assess how far and how fast [the electric vehicle] will penetrate the global auto fleet."

Yet, for all of his hemming and hawing, Yergin finally does make an assessment. By 2030, he says, with global energy consumption perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent greater than it is today, the mix between fossil fuels and renewables "will probably not be too different from what it is today." He continues, "Hydrocarbons will likely be somewhere between 75 and 80 percent of the overall supply. It is really after 2030 that the energy system could start to look quite different as the cumulative effect of innovation and technological advance makes its full impact felt."

Having made that call, Yergin doesn't explore what lies in store for a world still running 80 percent on hydrocarbons in 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, such a scenario would set atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations on course to rise past 650 parts per million of carbon-dioxide equivalent, "resulting in a likely temperature rise of more than 3.5*C in the long term." Three and a half degrees of global average warming may not sound like much, but it is very large indeed. (The currently accepted international goal, which we're likely to blow right past, is to hold the line at two degrees.) Three degrees is enough to trigger heat waves, drought, floods, and crop failures far beyond the jarring realities of 2011 and to consign as much as one-quarter of all plant and land animal species on Earth to extinction, according to a 2004 paper by University of Leeds ecologist Chris Thomas and his colleagues in the journal Nature.

The scariest thing, though, about three and a half degrees is that it's not a terminus -- it's a way station. Climatologists believe that a three-degree rise in global temperatures could effectively reverse the carbon cycle, so that instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, soil and vegetation release rising levels of carbon into the atmosphere and drive greenhouse-gas concentrations and global average temperatures higher still. It would be a horrific outcome, described by journalist Mark Lynas in his 2008 book Six Degrees.

Yergin, the dispassionate storyteller, chooses not to close his book with an examination of life in a much hotter world. He does, however, hold out hope that "the globalization of innovation" will catch up to the globalization of energy demand: "What provides for reasoned confidence is the increasing availability of what may be the most important resource of all -- human creativity." Innovation can make all the difference, he concludes, but it costs real money to accelerate it. Governments and investors must supply "sustained long-term support for the entire innovation chain," or "the world will pay a much larger price."