The facility of energy
While driving through the flat bushland of the Permian Basin in west Texas a few years ago, I pointed out flashy new billboards to the kids in the back seat saying, “Fireproof Workwear!” The kids weren’t too impressed, but I was – it was a tangible, visceral reference to the fracking revolution that was taking place a mile or two below our seats. Just as I hadn’t spoken of oil shocks and gas pipelines in their old age, they only grimly understood the geopolitical implications of the sparkling new oil platforms and how the revolution they represented would have a profound impact on their personal lives.
Daniel Yergin makes it clear in The New Map. Using galloping, data-laden prose (his trademark since Commanding Heights), Yergin paints a vast mural of the modern political landscape, largely defined by the changing energy sources that power the modern world. This is a book on the power of power: How states exert influence within the changing mosaic of hydrocarbon production, and how they struggle for leverage at a time when fossil fuels are being demonized while consuming record amounts of them.
Politics and power
While The New Map is definitely about gas (especially), oil, cars, turbines and the like – the engines of modern life – it is deeper about an aperçu into freedom itself. The very engine of human affairs, one concludes , is the irrepressible creativity of liberated spirits. Freed from the shackles of arbitrary coercive politics, it finds amazing ways to make a better life out of the air. In that sense, The New Map is a fundamentally positive, fundamentally humanistic book.
It is this humanistic subtext that makes reading the book so pleasant – the personal granularity reminds us that it is individuals, not “trends”, that move the world. Behind the broad, seemingly inevitable changes in global patterns are individual, assignable personalities. The father of modern fracking, we learn, was the tireless George Mitchell, son of an impoverished Greek goatherd who emigrated to America to seek and find an opportunity (along with a new name). Or take the case of “Red” Whittaker, a robotics expert behind the driverless vehicle revolution, who was approached by a disguised Larry Page (from Google) to get Larry’s personal robot experiment working. Or think of Ali Al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister, whose life mirrors the meteoric rise of the desert kingdom itself: he was born a Bedouin nomad and started as an office boy for Saudi Aramco. Eventually he became CEO, the first Saudi to hold the title.
Recognized personalities, Yergin is still a macro-thinker: he tries to distinguish the general from the particular, in order to depict, so to speak, the main features of our current global landscape. He spends a significant portion of the book examining the tortured relationships among our cousins in the Middle East – both petro-state actors with a penchant for dictatorial oppression like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, and the more amorphous networks of actors like ISIS and Hezbollah. A living vignette shows an ISIS leader trampling the Sykes-Picot Line, declaring it obsolete in the face of the “new caliphate”. Indeed, “Exporting the Iranian Revolution to the Whole Region” takes up a large part of the book. Destabilization overwhelms much of the earlier Middle Eastern order, with hydrocarbons helping fuel all sides’ ambitions and funding their dire activities. However, Yergin is quick to show how the unexpected shifts in gas production worldwide (particularly in the US) have shaken the monopoly on fuel prices and, to some extent, the monopoly of force itself.
This seismic shift is linked to the explosion in natural gas production and consumption, where “methane molecules compete and compete with one another in a global marketplace.” From the Groningen gas fields in the North Sea via Mexico (which, despite enormous proven reserves, currently imports 65 percent of its gas from the USA) to Venezuela (which, due to foreseeable mismanagement, wasted the largest proven oil fields in the world). For Russia and Germany, which are currently in intense negotiations over the last section of the NordStream2 pipeline, natural gas has opened another channel in a once foreseeable energy field. The new reality means, among other things, that Iran cannot negotiate its nuclear program as it used to, that Vladimir Putin must be more cautious in dealing with Europe, and that the United States is more flexible in setting politics. Both Russia and China, which reject the “universal values and norms” advocated by the West, are themselves constrained – a “relationship that was once based on Marx and Lenin is now based on oil and gas”.
How much can the rich, urbanized West insist that the “rest” (especially China and India) be condemned to the abject poverty that isolation from reliable energy brings?
All of these politics are of course terribly interesting, but Yergin adds a second compelling political level to his narrative: the politics of environmental protection. There are numerous illustrations of the machinations of environmental controls showing how power can be turned off in multiple directions. New York, for example, bans fracking in one of the most promising gas fields on the east coast, even if New Yorkers could benefit immensely from the relatively clean heating fuel and the resulting electricity generation. (In fact, new regulations in Westchester County are preventing new homes and businesses from making gas connections at all.) Continental has been charged with the death of one such bird by the Justice Department for its drilling at the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota. Propaganda teams under the Venezuelan dictatorship of the Maduro regime have partnered with eco-groups in the US to fuel fears of fracking – not for the sake of the environment, but to try to stop natural gas competition, which is driving the regime’s oil prices burdened relied on. Environmental and chemical companies (a classic Baptists and Bootleggers couple) have worked together in Washington DC to suppress natural gas exports from new terminals in Texas to artificially reduce production and protect chemical companies’ market share. And so on.
This background (perhaps cherry-picked) serves Yergin’s greater purpose, to put the idea of political power in a jaundiced, or at least cautious, light. The New Card acts primarily as a subtle abuse against those who would presume to dictate, and one of the most effective antidotes to this tyrannical tendency is to democratize energy sources. Power to the people indeed.
How to be a humanitarian
This inevitably brings us to the question of global warming (or “catastrophe” as it is now taken for granted). Yergin is neither a “denier” on climate change, nor a Pollyanna on anthropogenic emissions. Even so, he is noticeably concerned about the increasing movement towards global emissions regulations. While relying on the prevailing consensus on the need to keep temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, he is skeptical about who is best positioned to determine what types of action are being taken by whom and to what extent such measures are best to address the world’s most frequently cited commons problem.
To this end, Yergin spends a lot of time shedding cold, harsh light on the much-vaunted phrase “energy transition”. In this context, it is understood as the directional conversion of carbon-dense fuels to “renewable energies” with zero or “net zero” emissions (an important distinction that shields significant distortion). Yergin helps us understand the magnitude of such a suggestion – while clearly not against the intended goal, it brings the much-needed perspective into the often breathless, usually naive conversation about energy and its dissatisfaction. The enormous size of the current (and growing) demand for electricity makes supposed “green victories” such as new wind parks and solar fields appear to be lost. China, for example, brings three new coal-fired power plants into operation every month. These facts only illustrate a humanistic and ethical dilemma at the heart of the transition movement: How much can the rich, urbanized West insist that the “rest” (especially in China and India) be condemned to the bitter poverty that isolation results from reliable energy?
This is one of the most compelling segments of The New Map. In a discussion of the “forgotten three billion,” Yergin points out that the headless rush to slow the climate disaster will leave the world’s most vulnerable people behind. “We are told we have to take the next step beyond natural gas,” said Timipre Sylva, Nigeria’s petroleum minister. “The reality is that we have to address energy poverty in Africa before we start discussing things like renewables and electric cars.” The World Health Organization publicly states that the “greatest ecological health risk today” is not, as you might assume, nebulous long-term climate change, but the three billion people annually exposed to bad fuels that are burned indoors (mostly charcoal and cow dung ) kill about four million people annually. Small, cheap, portable natural gas stoves would do more for humanity (and the planet) than all of the Paris Accords put together. The demands of western governments and the Davos elite for draconian cuts in “dirty energy” and for a rather hypocritical ringing of the bell can appear positively cruel. To reject as “dirty energy” what many in the developing world say is the “clean energy” urgently needed for healthier and happier lives simply cannot stand on humanitarian grounds. According to Yergin, better answers are needed than a simple off switch.
The new card is of course not perfect. Yergin’s analyzes and addenda on the effects of COVID-19, for example, are insightful, but feel a bit compelled. You can feel they stopped the press as the pandemic unfolded to add something about the top story in the world to a book that was 99 percent complete. What about COVID-19 that doesn’t seem to be forced these days? In a way, the frank tone of Yergin’s COVID analysis fits the larger scheme of his work – he rightly points out that “the one indispensable truth is that oil is necessary for COVID recovery”. Like it or not, modern life is based on the easy, affordable and reliable access to energy from hydrocarbons. The shifting priorities of a global pandemic have only shown to what extent this is true.
Yergin wrote a contemporary, clear book that requires a lot of reading. It’s refreshingly optimistic work in the tradition of Julian Simon, Matthew Ridley and Stephen Pinker. It represents the best of a liberal humanistic approach: distrust of dirigist elites, confident in the latent wisdom of decent people who interact through unconstrained markets. And when I cross the Permian Basin again today and gasoline prices are lower than on my first trip. My son, who is now twelve years old, is glued to the audio book The New Map next to me. I have a feeling that the future is so complicated is likely is bright.