Insight into the energy sector

  • Books
  • Saturday, 17 Dec 2011

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

Author: Daniel Yergin

Publisher: Penguin Press

THE elements shaping the future of the world are many, but none is more pressing than energy. Hence, The Quest, a book that is more than timely, is more than a must-read for us all.

The Quest (to energy future) concerns not only oil, but other forms of energy resources ranging from natural gas, nuclear, non-carbon renewables, coal, biofuel, electricity and even a so-called fifth fuel. That being said, Yergin, a globally respected sage of the oil industry, is at his best when delving into oil. He unravels the history of oil interestingly, traverses across the globe and brings to light the compelling challenges unleashed by oil.

Russia and some of its former oil-rich states such as Kazakhstan take the first limelight in the book, starkly revealing to the filth of oil politics between nations and among oil firms. If the Russian story is awesome, then the impact of oil from Venezuela and Nigeria are eye opening. And the Middle East, as ever, is worrying, for it is a region where economic as well as political policies are often determined solely by oil and where disruption in oil production can send the world to a standstill.

Then come China and its relentless oil demand and Al Qaeda’s evil contemplation to disrupt energy supply in the region. Nearly everyone connected to the oil industry is here in the book, from rulers of oil states to executives of oil firms, politicians to terrorists, ministers to scientists.

What about laymen on the street? Despite their absence, their wails screech between the lines as each impact brought about by oil prices pierces them the hardest inevitably, interminably and incessantly. The 2008 financial crisis was the result of a hike in oil prices, an economist deadpans.

Twenty years ago, Yergin completed The Prize: The Epic Quest for oil, Money and Power. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and became the standard guide for laymen to learn about the oil industry. Though The Quest does not have the novelistic feel that contributed so greatly to the success of The Prize, it is undoubtedly a tour de force for its girth and depth.

The rich details may overwhelm but they’re there to better serve our understanding and hone our knowledge of the world and its tumultuous future defined by the energy. It also clarifies some of the counter arguments such as the question why oil-rich nations, save a few exceptions, are often economic casualties.

It is due to the so-called Dutch disease, put simply by Yerginas a trap that breeds social and economic ills. These include complacency, income instability, mismanagement of oil revenues and corruption.

By now, it is clear that Yergin deals not only in energy, but also in geology, economics, history, science and politics. He leads you to stock markets where oil is traded in the way financial instruments are, to everywhere around the world where shale gas – another form of unconventional gas – is produced and to Europe where major countries are building nuclear plants and counting on nuclear power to provide electricity.

Covering across a vast spectrum of specialisation, and quoting from a colossal body of experts, this book can and must only be devoured slowly – a chapter or at most two a day. Yet, read you must, for to read it is to understand the world and how energy plays a major role in it.

The most startling is the revelation that without energy there will be no electricity on which the operation of everything else depended. Another stark fact is derived from the possibility of global cooling, rather than the much-spoken about global warming. Still, both lead to “mass starvation, fuel shortages, megadeaths, and social upheavals.”

Besides biographic inclusion of prominent individuals in the field of energy, there are also wonderful anecdotes such as the time when Barack Obama searched for Premier Wen of China during the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change conference only to find him huddling with the heads of Brazil, India and South Africa in a private meeting to find a common position on climax change. The United States seemed to have been marginalised, if not ignored, in reaching global consensus.

Despite the teething troubles impelled by energy security and the problems facing alternative energy, Yergin remains hopeful. “Oil is found in the minds of men,” proclaims Yergin.

In plain words, it means human creativity is the most important resource in finding energy solutions for what remains of the 21st Century. In the meantime, we will settle in the Japanese way of mottainai, a term which means conserving and saving up our resources like the way the Japanese carefully save wrapping papers to be used over for they are “too precious to waste”.

That is the so-called fifth fuel – energy conservation. That optimism notwithstanding, we still need an energy miracle, and we need it fast.

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