Our Oily Future
At a time when solid facts and reasoned arguments are in retreat, Daniel Yergin rides to the rescue. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and energy savant is armed to the teeth with enough telling statistics to sink an oil tanker in "The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations" (Penguin Press, 512 pp., ★★★★ out of four).
While most “experts” predicted a decade ago that peak oil production was imminent, to be followed by a slippery slope of declining supply, Yergin said they were wrong. As usual, he was right.
The big issue today is not supply, but demand. When will our voracious appetite peak for all that plentiful oil, gas and coal?
In his latest book, Yergin provides an engaging survey course on the lifeblood of modern civilization — where the world has been and where it is likely headed. By the final page, the reader will feel like an energy expert herself.
This book is worth reading for its marvelous statistics alone. Here’s a delicious morsel: Between 2011-2013, China poured more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century. Communists do love concrete.
Here are yet more telling stats: China is building eight new airports a year, is now the world’s largest energy consumer and derives 60% of its total energy from coal, the fossil fuel of the 19th century.
Such concerning numbers prepare the reader for Yergin’s contention that the transition from greenhouse gaseous fuels to alternatives like solar and wind power is not going to be quick or easy. According to the author, the world depends on coal, oil and gas for 80% of its energy today, much as it did 30 years ago, when concern about climate change was just beginning.
While Yergin studiously keeps partisanship out of his thesis, his skepticism is evident for miracle cures like the Green New Deal launched last year by Democrats. It calls for the United States to be powered 100% through renewable energy by 2030 (the eventual Congressional resolution moderated that aspiration a bit). He is dubious, too, about the European Union’s aim of being “Net Zero Carbon” by 2050.
It isn’t that he opposes such green initiatives, although he never states his position explicitly. He simply wants to inject some reality into the equation. He writes, “The overall objective — net zero carbon by 2050 — is a daunting ambition. How daunting is underscored by the estimate that, for Europe to achieve its target, per capita emissions will have to decline to the level of India, where per capita income is $2,000 a year, compared to Europe’s $38,000.”
Those stats are a buzzkill to environmental dreaming for sure.
Yergin does provide a menu of possible technical breakthroughs that could change the energy equation, such as the development of hydrogen as a clean fuel. He also ably documents the progress of the various green strides that are underway. But in his view, the world will be extracting large quantities of fossil fuels for decades to come — and perhaps going to war over them.
China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea is not only about potential gas and oil deposits there, but also about safeguarding the delivery route for oil and gas imports that keep its economy humming. The recent chill in US-Sino relations and the move toward decoupling their economies heighten the risk of war breaking out on the high seas, the author points out.
If there is a complaint to be made about this thorough and valuable opus, it is that the reader yearns for Yergin to bust loose and pontificate. What would the smartest man in the room do in the face of the momentous challenge we, and our descendants, face?