I had a chance to talk with Yergin when we were both at the ECO:nomics conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal. He’s an impressive guy and a true expert in energy. He’s also an extremely articulate writer, as evidenced by his Pulitzer prize for his early work on oil, The Prize.
Yergin is best known as an expert on the oil and gas industries, but The Quest is quite comprehensive in looking at many different kinds of energy. It covers a lot of ground and is filled with a ton of facts and data. But it’s a fast read because Yergin relays information through stories that are very well told.
I found Yergin’s account of the history of oil exploration to be useful because it helps bring perspective to discussions of whether we’re in danger of running out of oil, whether production is likely to peak soon. Throughout history and still today, we keep finding more oil than we use. Reserves today are higher than at any time in history, not only for oil but also for natural gas and coal. This may be good news for traditional energy, but it shouldn’t lull us into complacency about aggressively pursuing low-carbon and no-carbon energy technology.
Yergin critiques the overly simplistic idea that we’re running out of oil, but he also questions the techno-optimists because of the costs and complexities involved in building new energy systems. He gives you the data to understand better what’s likely to happen in the future, but doesn’t try to pretend that he knows how everything will turn out. He doesn’t try to predict when or if solar energy will be cheap enough to compete with traditional energy sources, or whether we’ll get breakthrough batteries.
There are many complex issues in the energy sector. I’m most concerned with the impact of different energy sources and what they could mean for the world’s poorest and for carbon emissions overall. That’s why I wish Yergin had included an overview of the energy-for-transportation market, which is basically oil, versus the energy-for-electricity market, which is a mix of gas, coal, nuclear and renewables. The two markets are basically separate today, but will they stay that way? Will electric cars really take over? Will we be able to convert natural gas and coal into liquids?
His book is a real contribution to a debate that deserves far more attention, in my view. At 816 pages, it’s a commitment, but one that you’ll find worthwhile thanks to Yergin’s expertise as an energy expert and writer.