A new book by Daniel Yergin is a red-letter day in the energy calendar and his latest work, “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations,” is well worth the wait.
The US author is the energy guru par excellence. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Homeric narrative of the oil industry, “The Prize” in 1990, which is still cited as one of the most influential books on the energy industry, indeed on business in general.
In “The Quest” in 2011, Yergin took the story on and enlarged it to cover the full spectrum of the then emerging energy sectors — renewables, electric transportation, and alternative fuels such as hydrogen. He also sought to put the energy story right where it belongs — at the core of the geopolitical and macro-economic forces shaping the world.
“The New Map” comes after a decade of rapid transformation in energy, with renewables and other sources having broken through technological and financial barriers to become genuine challengers to the supremacy of fossil fuels (as Yergin had predicted).
But amid all this change, the lessons from his previous works remain true — in fact, truer than ever: Energy is an intensely political business, of as much concern to policymakers and macro-economists as it is to geologists and scientists.
“This book is about the new global map that is being shaped by dramatic shifts in geopolitics and energy. It is also about where this map is taking us,” Yergin writes.
The approach is familiar to anyone who has read his earlier works. Sweeping thematic narrative gives way to the fascinating detail garnered by someone who has sat at the top table with presidents, kings and chief executives for decades, but who still brings a journalistic eye to the proceedings.
“Energy reflects far-reaching alterations in global supply and flows, driven in major part by the remarkable change in the energy position of the US, and by the growing global role of renewables and the new politics of climate,” he writes.
As an American working during the dynamic decade in which the shale revolution propelled the US to global energy dominance, the intricacies of his domestic energy markets, and its interplay with the power makers in Washington, forms a major part of the book.
But Yergin also devotes as much space as is deserved to the other big macro-forces: The continued revival of the Russian energy sector under President Vladimir Putin’s drive to restore the Great Power status lost after the fall of communism, and the emergence of China as an energy power by virtue of its position as the world’s biggest consumer.
Middle East readers will have plenty to think about with Yergin’s assessment of the region’s place on his new map, and of the challenges faced by traditional hydrocarbon producers.
“The one market that seemed to be guaranteed for oil for a very long time was transportation and, specifically, the automobile. No longer, not on the ‘Roadmap’ to the future,” Yergin writes.
Despite his lineage as a historian of fossil fuels, Yergin is no climate change denier. “The momentum of climate policies — powered by research and observation, by climate models, and by political mobilization and regulatory power, social activism, financial institutions, and deepening anxiety — will transform the energy system,” he writes.
And, of course, there is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the profound changes it has brought about in the global energy world.
“The Plague” — as Yergin headlines it — broke just as he was putting the final touches to a manuscript that had been years in the making, yet he takes it in his stride. The account of the failed negotiations in Vienna in March, when Saudi Arabia and Russia fell out over production policy just as global oil demand collapsed because of the pandemic, is rich in dramatic detail.
If there is one quibble, it is that the book ends on a pessimistic note that is out of keeping with Yergin’s natural bonhomie and generally upbeat approach.
The final three words are “clash of nations,” recalling other apocalyptic forecasts for the world. Maybe the profound gloom of the deep pandemic days just got him temporarily down.