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Reviewed by:
  • The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World
  • Robert Looney (bio)
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011. 804 pages. $37.95.

According to many experts, the world’s key energy supplies are being rapidly depleted and will soon be exhausted. To these authorities the phenomenon of peak oil — a maximum level of production that will soon be reached only to fall off quickly — is gaining currency and is looming on the horizon. More troubling to this school of thought is the harsh realization that the world is simply not prepared to make the transition from hydrocarbon sources of energy. Crash programs to develop alternative fuels are needed immediately or the world economy as we know it will be doomed.

Other experts draw a completely different interpretation regarding energy scarcity; they see new technologies opening up vast reserves of hitherto inaccessible supplies of oil and natural gas. If only the government and the environmentalists would get out of the way, we now have the ability to expand our usable energy reserves indefinitely.

No doubt, those unfamiliar with the engineering and technical aspects of the energy sector find it difficult gain a sense as to which interpretation is closer to reality. Confusing the matter even further is the widespread perception that most of the socalled experts have hidden agendas, an ax to grind, or an ideological position to defend.

Fortunately, there is one expert, Daniel Yergin, whose reputation is beyond reproach. Yergin is the Pulitzer Prize author of The Prize, a monumental history of oil from its discovery to 1990. The Quest starts where The Prize left off, and tries to answer the fundamental question: what will the future of energy look like over the next 50 years? To shed light on this critical issue, the reader is led on a fascinating journey through 807 pages that directly confront a series of highly relevant considerations: Is the world rapidly running out of oil? Is natural gas the answer to our growing energy needs? Are the new developments in shale gas capable of postponing the long-feared rapid rise in energy costs? Is global warming the danger leading scientists seem to think it is? Is solar power a realistic alternative? He addresses each one of these issues thoroughly and objectively, and in doing so provides insights that may surprise many, and disappoint others, especially advocates or holders of extreme positions.

First, the intuitive peak oil argument is easily dismissed. As Yergin notes, forecasts of the peak of US domestic production have been repeatedly pushed into the future — output is four times higher than predictions made in the early 1970s. Clearly, technological progress has outrun increasing physical scarcity yielding far more oil from old sources and ones not previously counted upon.

Yergin’s view is that the world faces not a peak in production but a plateau that is not likely to be reached for a number of years. The importance of this finding is hard to underestimate, for it throws open to serious question the increasingly popular (and political) notion of the imperative to rapidly develop alternative energy sources.

Second, on the issue of global warming, Yergen offers little encouragement to those who view the issue as a hoax or junk science. Global warming is occurring, and there is little [End Page 381] doubt it will fundamentally alter many of the patterns we have become accustomed.

Third, talk of a transition from hydrocarbon — based energy sources is premature. No doubt in future years many technologies will become available that will enable the world to transition from fossil fuels. Unfortunately for the present, the renewable technologies that are currently being deployed are highly unlikely to provide enough reliable and cheap energy to replace fossil fuels.

Fourth, there is little doubt that despite new technologies and efforts at conservation the world’s use of energy will continue to grow — perhaps at even an accelerating rate if many of today’s emerging economies are able to maintain their rapid pace of growth.

At the end, one has to agree with Yergin’s conclusion that how the world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-3461
Print ISSN
0026-3141
Pages
pp. 381-382
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-16
Open Access
No
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