The Energy Grail

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World

Daniel Yergin

Allen Lane, 2011

The Quest by Daniel Yergin is a magisterial account of the complex evolution of energy security in an era of intense global interconnectedness. It captures the dizzying array of geopolitical and technological initiatives that have diversified and changed the global energy landscape beyond recognition since his 1990 publication of The Prize. These include the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of massive unconventional reserves of hydrocarbons in the Americas, as well as the rise of climate change as a global issue with momentous implications for oil-producing countries. Yergin casts his expert eye over all of these developments while demonstrating how many ostensibly-recent ‘breakthroughs’ (in biofuels and electric cars, for example) have historical roots stretching back to the dawn of the modern oil era at the beginning of the last century.

Yergin begins where The Prize left off as the two opening sections explore the changing dynamics of oil in the two decades since 1990. He then broadens the field of discussion to incorporate sections on the electric age, climate and carbon, renewable and other new forms of energy, and future trajectories and trends. This structure is a microcosm of the broader transformations he is describing, as the reader journeys far beyond oil to encompass the technologies and policy shifts reshaping energy production and consumption. The book ends with a discussion of next-generation electric cars that are far-removed from the oil-specific focus of its early chapters.

Several broad themes emerge. One is the sheer speed and scale of innovation in every sector of the energy industry. From the restructuring of the oil majors to the rise of China and the advent of technologies unlocking the giant pre-salt and oil sand deposits in Brazil and Canada respectively, the landscape today is unrecognizable from The Prize. So, too, is what Yergin labels ‘the natural gas revolution,’ as the ‘shale gale’ (p.329) transforms US gas markets and Qatar wields global influence through its worldwide marketing of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

[inset_left]To read The Majalla's recent interviw with Daniel Yergin, please click here[/inset_left]In 1990, Qatar’s population was 300,000 and Doha was a small city on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. Two decades of LNG development later the population has quintupled to 1.5 million and the capital boasts a Manhattanesque skyline and is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. These would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, but its energy-fuelled transformation is not unique, and is being replicated in other boom cities such as Astana. Kazakhstan is at the core of the pipeline politics, and Yergin provides a gripping account of the competing initiatives to redraw the geopolitical map of the oil industry.

These portend a radical rebalancing in global energy politics. So, too, does the appearance on the global agenda of the environmental movement, climate change awareness and mitigation, and initiatives to control the release of carbon into the atmosphere. All feature prominently in The Quest. They underscore the extent to which energy policies are inextricably linked to the operation of wider political, economic and social systems. This has resulted in a proliferation of stakeholders in global energy governance and growing complexities in reaching international agreements. The tortuous proceedings of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, lucidly documented in the book, are a case in point.

Other themes cover the revolution in information and scientific applicability spurring the array of renewable and alternative forms of energy development in contemporary knowledge economies. These encompass solar, wind and biofuels as well as the accelerating rates of research into clean technologies and, importantly, energy efficiency – the ‘fifth fuel’ with ‘the potential to have the biggest impact of all’ (p.614). If at times this reviewer felt overwhelmed by the rapid-fire assessment of one technology after another, cumulatively they emphasize the speed and scope of innovation and change. While The Quest is replete with accounts of false hopes and dashed expectations, chances are that some may become game-changing ‘general purpose technologies’ capable of altering the organization and structure of entire industries and even economies.

One of the most intriguing stories to emerge from The Quest is the rediscovery of processes that first appeared a century ago but either could not be developed at the time or fell victim to the powerful path-dependency of early decisions. Thus, Thomas Edison was a leading advocate of electric cars as early as 1900 (pp.671-2) but lost out to his former employee Henry Ford’s mass-production of cars with internal combustion engines. Similarly, Ford’s first Model T’s could run either on gasoline or ethanol as the two competed to become the ‘fuel of the future’ in the years immediately prior to the First World War (p.646). With electric cars and biofuels playing increasingly important roles in the shift toward low-carbon economies, these accounts provide a sense of policy-making moving full circle as the ‘century of gasoline’ comes face-to-face with the diversity of alternatives it once obliterated.

The transformations in the energy landscape have been as momentous as they are rapid. More and more institutions and actors are relevant to contemporary energy policy which itself is filtered through wider issues and overlapping interests. This is leading to fragmentation in hitherto-dominant inter-state frameworks of global energy governance. National and international governance priorities and objectives lack clarity or coordination and are ill-equipped to accommodate the plurality of competing interests associated with the deeper shifts in the global order. The ramifications of this divergence could perhaps be investigated further, but this aside The Quest succeeds in constructing a nuanced and comprehensive account of the challenges and opportunities that are, indeed, remaking the modern world.

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