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Book review: Daniel Yergin's "The Quest"

In 1995, a Western-led oil consortium holding a contract to drill a supergiant field in offshore Azerbaijan announced a momentous decision: It would build a small export pipeline from the capital of Baku to the West that would entirely bypass Russia. The momentous part was that, until then, Russia held an absolute monopoly on oil and gas exports from the Caspian Sea. Notwithstanding the size of the planned pipeline, it would break Russia's stranglehold on the so-called ‘Stans.

Four years later, BP CEO John Browne went further. Seeking U.S. approval to buy the U.S. oil company Arco, Browne announced an effective quid pro quo: If BP could acquire Arco, he would get behind a major U.S. foreign policy aim of the time -- the construction of another, truly big pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean Sea. The Arco deal went through, and so did the 1,000-mile-long pipeline -- in 2006, a flow of 1 million barrels of sweet, light Azeri crude surged through the Baku-Ceyhan line and onto the world market.

The post-Soviet years have been rocky for U.S. policy toward Russia and the ‘Stans. But the unusually dramatic pipeline saga of the 1990s and the early 2000s stands out as a rare American diplomatic triumph. It is why, for example, the U.S. currently has an alternative staging ground to serve U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a cargo route that crosses Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Washington sought Russian understanding and participation in the route, but the U.S. already had roots in the region -- the local cachet borne of the bold pipeline initiative meant that Washington did not require Russian permission to build military bases within Moscow's traditional sphere of influence.

So begins oil historian Daniel Yergin's much-awaited new book, the sequel to The Prize, the standard work on the industry. I reviewed The Quest for the San Francisco Chronicle, and to avoid repetition suggest that those interested read the piece here. Suffice to say that we get much new ground -- the events in oil since the 1990 publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, in addition to lengthy mini-histories on global warming and the various alternatives to fossil fuels, including solar, wind and electric cars.

Yet The Quest lacks the magisterial quality of the original, a meticulously researched, groundbreaking history that chronicled how the major events of the 20th century -- both world wars, for instance -- pivoted on oil, and delivered deeply etched personality portraits of those who counted. The Quest by comparison is a primer, based largely on other people's books and articles, and does not attempt to tackle history on a similar scale, nor to introduce the actors in three dimensions.

There are factual mistakes -- for instance, Yergin has the Baku small-bore pipeline ("Early Oil") decision occurring in 1996 and John Browne's eureka moment in 2001, respectively one and two years off the mark -- and selective fairness: Unlike the warts-and-all descriptions of historical oilmen in the original, which made you feel like you understood what made these trailblazers tick, Yergin seems to bend over backwards in the sequel to avoid telling detail that could possibly embarrass more recent and present-day players. Yet he practices no such discretion when it comes to Marion Hubbert, the father of peak oil, and former California Gov. Gray Davis, both of whom suffer withering treatment at Yergin's hand.

The major pity is that Yergin stands apart in his capacity to write a penetrating picture of what has really gone on in oil and natural gas over the last couple of decades -- that is, his privileged access to the major players in companies big and small, and petro-states across the globe. Presumably his memoirs will do better.

Editorial Notes: Steve LeVine wrote another review for the San Francisco Chronicle, available here. Financial Times just posted a review of "The Quest." Steven LeVine is a long-time contributor to Energy Bulletin. -BA

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