Q&A: Daniel Yergin found surprises while writing ‘The Quest’

Daniel Yergin’s 1990 book The Prize has been called the definitive history of oil’s role in civilization, the textbook that so many in the energy industry and outside of it turn to. Combined with his place on the podium at the annual CERAWeek conferences, which he started more than 30 years ago, Yergin has become one of the most recognized writers on all things energy.

Yergin’s latest effort, The Quest, leaves off where The Prize stopped in 1990 –putting the energy developments of the last 20 years into perspective. But then it does the former book a few better by delving into the history and future of issues like renewable energy, climate change and the role fossil fuels will play for years to come.

The reviews of the book, which was released this month, have largely been positive (see links to them below), although his challenge to the theory of Peak Oil — that global oil supplies are about to crest followed by turmoil as supplies shrink — have drawn criticism.

Yergin talked to FuelFix recently about surprises he found while writing the book, the obsessive individuals at the heart of energy innovation, and what stories he had to leave out.

Q: So much of The Quest covers topics you’ve studied for years and lived through over the past 20 years, but was there anything that really surprised you as you wrote the book?

A: The story of where climate change came from, how it went from being of interest to a tiny handful of scientists to being a critical issue for energy and in politics, was an eye-opener for me.

I had no idea the story would start off in the Alps in the 1770s. In the 19thcentury there was a small group of scientist who realized there had been an ice age and they became terrified the glaciers would come back and obliterate civilization. But it wasn’t until the 1950s and the 1960s that they started to focus on the threat of warming and not cooling for the most part.

This story of Professor Hagan Smith was also a surprise. I grew up in Los Angeles, where at the age of 9 or 10 I delivered newspapers every day. I remember my lungs hurt because of the smog. The smog has been pretty much cleaned up, although the population is much larger and there were all kinds of battles along the way, but I could still feel the smog in my lungs as I wrote about it.

One of the great characters in the book is Arie Haagen-Smit. He was the one who discovered the active ingredient in marijuana as a professor at Caltech, and he was also trying to figure out what was the chemical basis for pineapple’s taste. He stepped out of his lab one day while doing this work and he couldn’t breathe because of the smog. So he said “I better find out what this stuff is” and he found out it was because of improperly burned gasoline in car engines.

He later became the head of the California Air Resources Board, which most people have never even heard of it but it’s basically the closest thing the world has to a global regulator of the automobile industry.

Q: Were there certain stories that you felt hadn’t been written about before that you wanted to get out there through the book?

A: I think a lot of the book is about how things happened, where they come from. For example, this arc of development of the rebirth of renewables. By the 1990s the people in the renewables business described it as “the Valley of Death.” The rebound really started in Europe in the role Germany took in term triggering the rebirth of renewables. It was something I found very interesting.

The gas story and where shale gas came from was not well known at all. So I went back and talked to the geologists and petroleum engineers who worked for Houston’s George Mitchell about how it happened. Here’s something that probably counts as the biggest energy development of several decades, with implications not just for natural gas but the whole energy sector.

It was just a fascinating story because for most people this all just started yesterday. They’re asking “Should we have shale gas?” and don’t’ realize it’s now 30 percent of our natural gas production already.

I was very much led by the material. In the parts about electricity I focus on Ronald Reagan at a spokesman for GE not just because it’s entertaining but because it’s focusing on something I hadn’t realized, which was that it was only after World War II that the U.S. became an electrified country. Our growth then was like China today.

And it was interesting looking for the people you’d never heard of who helped make things happen. I found this guy, Jim Dehlsen, who as much as anybody is a pioneer of wind technology in the United States. I just heard his name and I tracked him down. He’s the guy in the book who stands on a ridge wearing a helmet with some wind farms in the background in a business suit.

I also realized there was hardly a word about China in The Prize. In this book it gets two chapters on its own. One of the things I learned is when China decided to open up to the world it had no way to pay for its first wave of modernization except by exporting oil. Japan was very glad to buy oil from China because it meant they could sell machinery to China. It was that kind of critical moment in 1993 that a decade later would have major impact on the global marketplace.

Q: The book revisits the electric and ethanol roots of the automobile, showing those were ideas from the earliest days. What lessons do you take from that history?

A: I found a painting we were able to include in the book that takes readers back to a dinner in 1886 where the most famous inventor in the world, Thomas Edison, is seated at a dinner next to this young engineer who works for Detroit Edison, Henry Ford.

Ford describes what he wants to do with cars and Edison says it’s a good idea and that hydrocarbons are a good source of fuel. Edison says that was a key moment for him, but a few years later he changes his mind and decides we ought to have battery powered cars. By 1910 it looked like the race was over, the internal combustion engine had won. But now the race has started again.

And if you look in the book we have this great juxtaposition of a photo of a woman charging a battery-powered car in 1910 and then Carlos Ghosn in the same posture in 1990. But we won’t know for another five or six years what kind of role the electric car will play in the overall transportation mix.

Q: From reading the book it seems some ideas and technologies are in this start-and-stop waltz over the decades, where they advance and stop, fade from view, then come back. What’s the lesson you take from this?

A: I was just reading a piece recently about energy innovation and how “the government should do this and the government should do that.” But that’s not really how innovation happens.

I think in the pages of this book there are a lot of obsessive individuals who make things happen, who have a real power to just keep at it. I mean, George Mitchell kept at it for 15 years [continuing to frac wells until he came upon the right techniques that would be cost effective].

David Keeling is the guy who is responsible for tracking carbon in the atmosphere. There’s a quote from Roger Revelle in the booking saying Keeling was only interested in knowing everything there was to know about carbon dioxide. “He’s never been interested in anything else,” he said.

The other thing of course is the constant role of surprise. In the energy business just as there’s a consensus and everyone is confident in the way things are going to go, things change. That’s why I start the book with Fukushima and the Arab Spring.

Q: On the idea of a consensus, has your involvement in the quick-turnaround study of shale gas drilling for the Department of Energy and the National Petroleum Council study on natural gas development changed your enthusiasm for shale gas?

A: No. The community engagement part of natural gas development is now clearly significant. Suddenly lots of trucks appearing in communities can be disruptive, and such things need to be addressed, for example.

We came away from the study we did for [Secretary of Energy Steven] Chu saying it can be done — and largely is done — in an environmentally responsible way, but there’s a need for more measurement to address air concerns, to address water concerns and if there are problems to find the solutions.

Classically, the states have regulated drilling for the gas industry. The question is if we should be expanding the mandate for the federal government’s oversight. The New York Times’ editorial after we released the shale study for Secretary Chu ended with a ringing declaration that “this is why the EPA should take over drilling.” That certainly has an  impact on states and how they deal with the federal government.

But one of the reasons [for the increased tensions] is shale has move so fast. Once it really got traction around 2008 it moved quickly.

Q: You spend a lot of time toward the end of the book talking about efficiency. Why?

A: I call it “the fifth fuel” in the book. It was really energy efficiency that got me into studying energy. I was obsessed with it. It’s basically a huge energy source. When people complain we waste a lot of energy I tell them we’re twice as energy-efficient as we were a decade ago. People gasp when you tell them that.

But it’s not glamorous, there’s no photo opportunity, no red ribbon to cut or thing to show in TV commercials that says “efficiency.” But it has a big impact and it’s something that countries like China and India have as a big agenda item. China says it’s a top priority because they’ve inherited this incredibly inefficient Communist-era heavy industry and it’s bad for them economically and it’s also bad in terms of pollution.

Q: Are there things you wish you had time and space for in the book you didn’t get to?

A: My publisher got to a point with me where she said “Dan, what have I not made clear? You can’t keep writing.” In a way this is a book you could keep working on forever because the story is always evolving.

I would have liked to have dealt more with the story of geothermal. It’s a great story I don’t have in there. I focus much more on China than India, but I would have liked to do much more on India.

One thing it has in common is I was late on delivery. It was supposed to be in let’s say like three years ago.

Q: Did the success of The Prize loom over your shoulder, setting expectations for this book?

A: I’d done two books right after The Prize –- one with a colleague about the future of Russia, and then I did Commanding Heights with Joseph Stanislaw, which was supposed to be an article and became a book. But I didn’t want to just do The Prize 2. So much had changed in the world.

I felt comfortable and far enough away from The Prize, but at the beginning it loomed over my shoulder. But I quickly moved on. I was trying to write with a somewhat similar voice, but a different book that would really show a coherent picture of the energy world in a narrative way.

It was a little hard to get started, which was similar to The Prize, too. But I remember deciding two things. One: I was going to write the book that I wanted to read. So it’s a little quirky the things I find interesting, the coincidences and surprises. The second thing: I felt as I was writing the book that I was working for the reader. My job was to create a coherent narrative.

In the process of writing you find out what you think and test your ideas. The only way to write this, for me at least, was to focus on one thing, get my arms around it, get immersed in it (and here I’m mixing my metaphors) and shape it almost like shaping pottery. Then I would finish that, empty it out of my mind and move on to the next section and depend on my subconscious to tie it all together and make the links work.

But the past echoes not only in the present but in the future. What I’m hoping this book does is provide a context and a framework for understanding the choices and the options and how they relate to each other.

Early on when I got into working on energy I was at a dinner where there was a senator who was asked “Why is it so difficult for the congress to deal with energy?” He said “We don’t really have the framework, these issues just come whizzing through.”

So ever since then I’ve been trying to provide a framework. I think in a very narrative storytelling form I hope that was readers will gather from this.

Q: In the book you seem to put a lot of faith in human ingenuity and technological advances to solve many of the challenges we face in energy. How would you answer someone who says you’re being too Pollyanna-like?

A: I would say to that almost two-and-a-half centuries of human history makes one have confidence in technological innovation. We’ve come pretty far and I don’t see why it will stop.

So I end on that theme, on [French engineer] Sadi Carnot, talking about how once the steam engine succeeded it was a great revolution in civilization in that we no longer had to rely on human and animal labor. The whole story ever since has been a great revolution of technology.

So the book is optimistic. This is not a doom and gloom book. It says there are very real issues, there are real risks and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about them. But if we’re realistic and human ingenuity continues to work we’ll find solutions.

Twenty years from now our energy system will probably look pretty much as it does today because of long lead times. But after 2030 there could be a whole host of surprises that make things look different than they do today. There are probably people out of sight now working on it who will probably have huge impacts on it.

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Here are reviews of The Quest:

In the NYTimes Sunday Book Review Farad Zarkaria says the book is a “fair minded” attempt to answer the question “What will the future of energy look like over the next 50 years?

The Economist called it “a masterly piece of work” that was “confusingly structured” at times.

Mason Inman more or less trashed the book by dissecting many specific points in a series of posts.

Below is a 20-minute interview of Yergin by The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel:

Yergin also appeared on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

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