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Young Daniel Yergin as peak oil activist (book review)

I first learned about Peak Oil several years ago and have spent much time investigating the accuracy of our energy problems. The more you learn the worse it gets. I came across a book at a flea market entitled Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School [1979], edited by Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin. At first I put it back due to Daniel Yergin’s position on Peak Oil. About a year later I returned and found the book still there. I bought it for 50 cents.

While I have not read every page I feel it is important to review this book now that we are where we are with regards to energy.

Energy Future is an astounding book. The following is a list of the chapters.

  1. The End of Easy Oil

  2. After the Peak: The Threat of Imported Oil
  3. Natural Gas: How to Slice A Shrinking Pie
  4. Coal: Constrained Abundance
  5. The Nuclear Stalemate
  6. Conservation: The Key Energy Source
  7. Solar America
  8. Conclusion: Towards a Balance Energy Program
  9. Appendix: Limits to models

As one can tell from the chapter headings, the subject matter parallels the issues we face today. The numbers are bigger and the politics have changed somewhat but the issues have not. The opening sentence of the first chapter reads as follows:

In 1968, the State Department sent the word to foreign governments-American oil production would soon reach the limits of its capacity.

This is a staggering statement in light of so many oil industry execs stating publicly at the time that we had plenty. The very next paragraph goes on:

But few people anywhere thought seriously about the implications of losing the cushion… Middle Eastern oil was the world's favorite fuel-easy to produce in large volumes” (a dime or two a barrel), easy to transport, easy to burn-certainly easier than coal.

Are you ready for the next paragraph?

In 1970, some 111 years after the birth of the American oil industry, domestic production peaked and began to decline.

We now call this U.S. Peak Production. What is most astounding to me is one of the writers of this chapter is none other that Daniel Yergin himself. Yes, that’s right, Daniel Yergin of CERA- Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the same organization that dismisses Peak Oil as “garbage.”

Although Stobaugh and Yergin are not the writers of all the chapters in the book, they are the compilers and therefore have ultimate responsibility for its contents. The contents are very good. Stobaugh and Yergin’s staff must be given credit for this important compilation of our energy situation as it was in the late 70’s. I found it quite informative as both a history lesson and a warning. I felt as if I was reading from any number of authors presently attempting to wake other up. From Mathew Simmons's words on natural gas to Richard Heinberg’s comments on our coal situation, from conservation to biofuels to solar it covers most of it, often with a technical expertise and use of so many models it boggles the mind. Truly this is a book for the informed. It is well referenced with a bibliography that is interesting to read in and of itself.

The book only mentions the peak in US production. Never is M.King Hubbert mentioned. At the conclusion of the chapter entitled "After the Peak: The threat of imported Oil", Stobaugh states:

In short, increasing dependence on imported Oil poses a threat to American political and economic interests; that much must now be clear.

... Americans should not delude themselves into thinking that there is some huge hidden reservoir of domestic oil that will free from the heavy costs of imported oil...to the extent that any solution at all exists to the problem posed by the peaking of the U.S. oil production and imports, it will be found in energy sources other than oil.

I will conclude with statement in the chapter entitled Solar America.

According to the organizer of the international Sun Day, “Forty percent of our energy could come from solar energy by the year two thousand if we make some dramatic changes now.” The editor of World Oil disagrees, saying that the source will have the impact over the next quarter century of “a mosquito bite on an elephant’s fanny.

That is exactly where we find the solar industry today.

I fully recommend this book. It is a bit technical and at times uses models so complex you need to be a Harvard grad to understand them. The tone of the book is somewhat alarmist. Clearly Yergin is worried. Why the change? Why has Daniel Yergin changed his tune so much? More importantly, why did our leaders stray so far from the book as to make many of its predictions sound too close for comfort.

Editorial Notes: Daniel Yergin is co-founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), which has been critical of the peak oil theory. At the time of the book's publication (1979). TIME Magazine published a review of the book that sounds as if it could have been written yesterday:
The book's basic thesis, which was reported in Foreign Affairs and TIME last spring, is both conventional and incontestable. It is that the nation's four basic fuels—petroleum, natural gas, coal and nuclear—are either depleting or face strong public opposition, and new energy sources must be phased in before the old are totally exhausted. The surprising aspect of Energy Future is its optimistic assessment of the potential of solar energy and conservation to carry the load as those "new sources." ...The conservation chapter, written by Yergin, is more persuasive though somewhat extravagant. He argues that with only minor adjustments in life-style and no decline in economic growth, Americans could consume 30% to 40% less energy than they do today. ...the Harvard study is gloomy to the point of being defeatist about fossil fuels. Energy Future offers no hope that much new oil can be found in drilled-out America. The authors largely write off as impractical the attempts to recover left-behind oil in old wells. Natural gas, in their view, also has a dim future because proven reserves have been steadily shrinking. Even before Three Mile Island, notes the book, nuclear power was declining. Finally, mining, transportation and pollution problems rule out big increases in coal production. The book's main flaw is that it gives up too quickly on the existing fuels, while placing too much faith on the unproven performance of solar and conservation. Both of those deserve to be encouraged, but so do existing and future fuels. Oil can be stretched by technological ingenuity, and the potential for developing the nation's shale resources is vast.
It's 28 years later, and instead of a U.S. peak, we are now looking at a global peak. And this time Daniel Yergin finds himself on the other side of the argument. Reviewer and EB contributor Eugene Duran writes:
I am a 43 year old Santa Fe native. I am currently working for the Village of Los Lunas, New Mexico as Youth Coordinator. I have been interested in energy since I learned about Peak Oil in April of '05. Since that time I have become a master gardener and have installed: a hot water system, photovoltaics, water harvesting and a garden. My wife Christine and I live in a small house of less that 1000 square feet in Tome', New Mexico.
-BA

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