Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Quest by Daniel Yergin (Book Review #94 of 2014)

The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Making of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin
 This book was on a recommended reading list produced by the State Department under the "(Geographic) Area Studies" subheading. I would not recommend it as informational about any particular region in the world. I did not find it nearly as enjoyable as Yergin and Stanislaus' Commanding Heights, which I was surprised is not on the State Department's reading list. The first 1/3 is on the history of energy and development of oil and natural gas exploration from the early 20th century to today. (I imagine this to be taken mostly from Yergin's The Prize, although I have not read it). The book opens with a brief look at the collapse of USSR. Yergin delves into the history of Azerbaijani politics in both in the 1920s and 1990s, which I enjoyed from having lived in Azerbaijan and being familiar with the history. Yergin recounts the "Caspian Derby" for oil in the 1990s and the rise of Heydar Aliyev; the "Deal of the Century" worked out with an international consortium of oil companies and the battle to build the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The story of exploration of the Tengiz field in Kazakhstan is reminiscent of events in Syriana. The book covers the 90's mergers of BP-Amaco-Arco, Conoco-Phillips, and others as companies dealt with downturns in the oil market. I enjoyed looking at the Asian financial crisis through the lens of its effects on the oil market.

There is a large divergence to explain the 2003 Iraq war. There was mention of the hopes of Iraqi oil paying for the war, but through interviews with those on the ground Yergin explains how the Iraqi oil industry was outdated with 1950s technology and how hard it was to get up to 3 million barrels of output a day, far from the 6 million hoped for before the invasion.

Economist James Hamilton is mentioned in talking of how the oil boom in the 2000s mirrored the housing boom, and Bob Shiller is also profiled.

The rise of Qatar with liquid natural gas is contrasted with Iran's history of being unable to develop its own fields. The history of shale gas, fracking, horizontal digging, and other technological advances are outlined. The natural disasters such as BP and the Gulf Coast, Fukashima Daichi, and more are covered.

J.P. Morgan's funding of Edison is held up by Yergin as probably the first example of modern capitalism, and the author explains the politics and economics behind the battle between Edison and Tesla. He chronicles the exploits of Enron, the California energy crisis, Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island, nuclear engineering, and more.

The second 1/3 of the book is a history of climate change research, policy debates, politics of global warming & climate change. John Tyndall, perhaps the first climatologist, is chronicled as Yergin gives a near complete history of atmospheric science and the debate over climate change. As late as 1972 there was a large body of scientists arguing that "global cooling" was a grave danger. Yergin handles this section very well, just the facts and the history laid out chronologically.  Yergin documents the fight over international agreements such as the one George Bush '41 signed in Rio and the later Kyoto Protocols.

The last 1/3 is renewables and new technology (photovoltaics, smart grids, etc). Yergin highlights all the latest advances and what is needed for renewables to dominate the market, and the challenges of the international politics. It reads like a compilation of articles found in recent issues of Time and The Atlantic.

I give this book 4 stars out of five, it's really three books in one and draws out too much. It is filled with too many repeated cliches, especially at the end. Yergin keeps hedging his bets talking about new technology "this is no silver bullet," "there is no guarantee," etc. If you work in or are deeply interested in energy, technology, and climate change then this is your book. Otherwise, you'll find it boring.

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