Daniel Yergin’s new book, ‘The Quest,’ illuminates energy questions of the day

On the same day as I finished reading “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” I saw in the newspaper that the estimate for North Dakota’s recoverable oil reserves is now 24 billion barrels–but that’s only a small fraction of the reserves under the Bakken Shale formation. North Dakota is now the number-three oil producing state, after Alaska and Texas.

Yergin, who’s a terrific writer (although this book desperately needed a copy editor), presents the case for a mixture of energy sources in the future. In this follow-up to his equally monstrous “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power,” published twenty years ago, he devotes enormous care to explaining how nations like Kazakhstan and Brazil are helping to meet rising demand from China and elsewhere; how the study of climate science has exerted its influence; how renewable energy has developed to this point.

Yergin quotes Churchill: “Safety and security in oil lie in variety and variety alone.” But he would substitute “energy” for “oil.” The problem remains that none of these anointed alternatives matches the bang for the buck that oil provides. Greenies and politicos can mandate change, but ultimately it comes down to the consumer’s pocketbook. Having driven the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma–two plug-in electric cars that were heavily subsidized by the federal government–I’m unimpressed. OK, I love the Karma because it’s gorgeous. But it weighs about as much as a rhinoceros and achieves the equivalent of 20 mpg.

Meanwhile, Chevy just suspended operations at the Volt factory because people aren’t buying the car, not even after the $7500 tax kickback. Having also visited a wind farm and a solar-thermal generating station, I’m aware of the upside and the downside to renewables. The upside is that this type of heavily subsidized power generation helps to meet peak demand. The downside is that windmills routinely kill protected golden eagles and other birds. If this slaughter went on at an oil well, the greenies would wet their pants about it. And solar-thermal generation uses an awful lot of groundwater from the aquifer. In any event, renewables are impossible without governmental subsidies.

The Fisker Karma was awarded Automobile Magazine's Design of the Year.

The other day, President Obama said, “Here is the truth. If we are going to control our energy future, then we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy. We’ve got to develop every source of American energy—not just oil and gas, but wind power and solar power, nuclear power, biofuels.”

Here are a couple of suggestions for the President. Stop taking credit for the increase in domestic oil and gas production; you have nothing to do with it. In fact, North Dakota wouldn’t have passed California for third place among producing states if the Golden State’s industry weren’t strangled by regulation. And Mr. Obama wants to end the $4 billion annual subsidies that oil and gas industries receive. Maybe he’s right. But in that case, he should also stop funding pet projects in renewables and stop bribing consumers to buy government-supported cars.

A final thing to take into account is that the improvement of the internal combustion engine isn’t finished. People tend not to think past 1973, to hold any hope of further gains in efficiency. Call me crazy, but I’d guess onboard carbon capture is more likely before there’s ever a truly practical battery-powered car.

After reading “The Quest,” I conclude that the rapid increase in oil and gas production should continue as our national priority, along with efficiency gains. The real and immediate prospect of North American energy independence is something we’ve dreamt of for several decades. We shouldn’t have qualms about exploiting the advantage.

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