Twenty years ago, Daniel Yergin won a Pulitzer Prize and a perch on the best-seller lists with "The Prize," not least because he dared to take an old-fashioned narrative approach to writing about energy--a subject usually discussed in books aimed at the wonky set and clotted with technical discussions of BTUs, gigawatts and exajoules. "The Prize" focused on the rise of oil as the world's pre-eminent energy source starting in the late 19th century and on its role in modern geopolitics. Now Mr. Yergin is back with a sequel, "The Quest," covering the volatile developments in the energy industry over the past two decades and assessing its uncertain future.
He tells a sprawling story richly textured with original material, quirky details and amusing anecdotes. Who knew that among the big early adopters of solar photovoltaics were indoor marijuana growers eager to conceal their heavy electricity use? The tale is generously sprinkled with facts debunking common misperceptions, and Mr. Yergin sagely analyzes how well the energy industry really works. What he does not do--despite what some readers may long for--is draw many conclusions. His reportorial style is to rely on the "some say this, some say that" construction. Yes, but what does Mr. Yergin say? Often he doesn't. Then again, when the nation's energy conversation is a muddle because no one, including the members of Congress, ever settles on what problem we're trying to solve--we want more oil and less!--who can blame him?
The book is divided into six parts: oil, gas, electricity, climate change, renewable energy and "the road to the future." As readers of "The Prize" might expect, Mr. Yergin is strongest in his examination of the global dimensions of the oil industry. Since the end of the Cold War, the oil business has undergone a revolution that has begun to diminish the centrality of the Middle East. The opening of vast new fields in Russia, new drilling technology and the rise of "unconventional" hydrocarbons, such as Canadian tar sands, have unlocked vast new supplies and extended the outlook for oil for several more decades. Mr. Yergin therefore dismisses "peak oil" alarmism--the notion that world-wide production is going into terminal decline. He notes that peak oilers tend not to be well versed in economics.
This article is available in full by subscription to the Wall Street Journal. The full text will be posted to AEI.org on Monday, September 26, 2011.
Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI