Energy: Burning desires

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An obsession with oil distorts an account of the security of energy supplies, argues Vaclav Smil.

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

Daniel Yergin Allen Lane/Penguin Books: 2011. 704 pp. £30.00/$37.95 ISBN: 9781594202834

Buy this book: US UK Japan

An incessant flow of energy is the basis of modern civilization, so a secure energy supply — particularly the availability of oil — is inevitably the focus of much public and media interest. Energy expert Daniel Yergin duly focuses on the past, present and future supply of crude oil and on concerns about the security of the fuel's supply. But with his narrow focus on oil, he passes up the opportunity to delve more deeply into our energy challenge.

In The Quest, Yergin, chairman of the US consultancy IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, ranges over the history of modern oil and gas production and electricity generation, the security of petroleum supplies and the evolution of concerns about global warming. He deals with key episodes of modern oil development, such as increasing Russian production, rising Chinese demand, supply disruptions, the controversy over peak oil production and unconventional resources such as oil shale. Yergin then turns to global warming and alternative energy, with an emphasis on photovoltaics and wind.


Oil supplies have remained steady for 40 years despite disruptions such as the Kuwaiti well fires in 1991.

The book, which is sliced into more than 400 short sections, covers policy and economics more than science and technology. Its analysis of energy sources is uneven. Coal, for example, warrants a single page. Yet during the twentieth century, coal supplied the world with more energy than did oil. In 2010, coal combustion accounted for 30% of all global commercial energy (compared with nearly 34% for oil) and 40% of electricity generation.

“Particularly in rich countries, energy security depends more on using fuel and electricity rationally.”

Yergin is no catastrophist. He presents ample evidence to counter the notion that we are running out of oil: new discoveries, exploitation of additional reserves in existing fields and unconventional oil resources will maintain the flow for the foreseeable future, he says. Globally, the market has remained well supplied despite the comings and goings of dictators and ayatollahs, and major disruptions in output.

Since the early 1970s, there have been many such disruptions, starting with the embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973–74, and the decline of extraction in the United States, which was the world's largest producer until 1975. These were followed by the Iranian revolution in 1979; Iraq's takeover of Kuwait in 1990; the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991; the rise of oil imports by China, which was a net exporter of oil until 1994; the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; and, most recently, the Libyan civil war.

Through all of this, global oil extraction rose by two-thirds, from 2.3 billion tonnes in 1970 to 3.9 billion tonnes in 2010. Adjusted for inflation, crude oil is cheaper than it was 30 years ago, and in many countries, governments take a larger chunk of the price of petrol in tax than goes to the demonized OPEC or multinational oil companies.

Nevertheless, Yergin is sufficiently worried about maintaining an undisrupted oil supply that he feels energy security should be integral to foreign policy, given the high costs and long lead times of energy development. But I would argue that, particularly in rich countries, energy security depends more on using fuel and electricity rationally.

More important than OPEC's manoeuvrings is our continuing reliance on hundreds of millions of inexcusably inefficient vehicles, our preference for poorly insulated houses, our often mindless mobility and our consumption of energy-intensive junk. And as for the rapidly modernizing countries, is China's only choice to copy the US model of mass car ownership?

Yergin makes no comparisons of what nations actually do with energy — for instance, how much they need to secure a decent quality of life. Poor people in developing countries obviously need more energy, but how much more? As much as is already consumed, per capita, by their urban compatriots? Or, eventually, as much as in the United States, where the usage per head is twice as high as that in the richest European countries?

The book is silent on these matters. Instead, Yergin concludes that “this quest for energy goes without end”. But it cannot — and should not.


  1. Report this comment #26886

    Michael Lardelli said:

    Yergin also recently published an article, "There will be oil" in the Wall Street Journal which was basically a dismissal of peak oil concerns. However, the article has received extensive criticsm at With the barrel price of oil now five times what it was a decade ago and with no significant increase in conventional crude oil production since 2006 (even the International Energy Agency admits this) the idea that higher oil prices will lead to increased production has broken down and the physical reality that oil is a finite resource in a finite world has begun to sink in. What should be declared in the above article is that Yergin is actually the chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates that has a repeated history of providing overly optimistic future oil production projections to the oil industry. These optimistic prognoses serve a useful purpose to oil companies looking to maintain investor confidence as they struggle against ever more difficult technological challenges to milk the Earths remaining oil resources. (Deepwater Horizon anyone?) But we should maybe see Yergins book and WSJ article as a last hurrah before the wheels fall off the oil optimism bandwagon since the decline rate in giant fields already in production is now 6% annually, there is relatively little new oil left to bring on line, and we will soon enter a phase when unconventional oil and ethanol (now counted as oil!) cannot arrest a decline in overall volumes.

  2. Report this comment #27113

    Mason Inman said:

    Smil gives Yergin too much credit when he says "He presents ample evidence to counter the notion that we are running out of oil." In fact, many of Yergin's arguments are illogical, or use iffy evidence, or simply get things wrong.

    I've written a series of posts detailing a bunch of the problems, all available at Here's a run-down:

    #1: Peak Oil Projection Was Far Off?, 17 Sept 2011
    Yergin says that a famous prediction for U.S. oil production was far off the mark, but a graph from Yergin's own company shows the forecast was actually quite close

    #2: One Giant Oil Field?, 19 Sept 2011
    Yergin misunderstands the basic argument of one of the most famous peak oil forecasters, casting doubt on Yergin's critique of the whole idea

    #3: We?re Finding Oil Faster Than We?re Using It?, 23 Sept 2011
    Yergin claims that we're adding more oil to reserves than we've been using in recent years?but his view is very short-sighted (especially for a historian) and the numbers he relies on are clearly not reliable.

    #4: Only the Pessimists Have Been Wrong?, 25 Sept 2011
    There is a long history of failed predictions of peak oil that turned out to be too pessimistic?but this does not show, as Yergin thinks, that such predictions are bound to always be wrong. There are many failed predictions for oil that were also far too optimistic, but Yergin doesn't mention those.

    #5: Peak Oil = Running Out of Oil?, 25 Sept 2011
    Yergin consistently characterizes peak oil as "running out of oil," as if the idea is that the last drop would be used up soon. But actually oil forecasters foresee a gradual decline, whenever it happens?but a long-term decline in oil would be a turning point in the history of industrial civilization that we've never had to deal with before.

  3. Report this comment #27178

    Francois Diaz Maurin said:

    When trying to break our addiction to oil (and to fossil energy in general) it would be nice to starting breaking this addiction from our discourses and studies. On that respect Vaclav Smil makes a point in criticizing the narrow focus of Yergin's book.

    This is exactly the work we are doing on Our Energy Futures starting with a key question: *Can we run a modern society, at a given level of population, keeping a material standard of living considered as acceptable, according to modern standards, while reducing dramatically our dependence on fossil energy?*

    Answering this question requires addressing three different issues:
    #1 If we want and/or need to replace fossil energy do we have a viable alternative to the fossil fuel economy?
    #2 How quickly can this transition be achieved and which type of problems should we expect?
    #3 What type of changes should we expect in our daily lives?

    There are several stories for each one of these issues to which anyone can respond.
    In particular, you might be interested in Vaclav Smil's story Energy transitions are inherently slow ( ).

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