The Oil and the Glory

Daniel Yergin’s much-awaited sequel

Daniel Yergin’s much-awaited sequel

Two decades ago, the world turned again to one of its periodic realizations that not much could happen in the modern economy without oil. The proximate trigger of this burst of knowledge was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a perceived threat that Saudi Arabia could be next, and a fear that much of the world’s oil could be controlled by a single, not-quite-stable dictator. We all know what happened next — the beginning of a chain of events that led to Saddam Hussain’s ouster a little over a decade later, and the turbulence we see now in Iraq.

But the Gulf War also provided unexpected subtext for Daniel Yergin, whose masterwork history of oil, The Prize, was coincidentally published a few months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and became a No. 1 best-selling non-fiction title. The next year it won a Pulitzer Prize. The reasons are evident as, even two decades later, The Prize stands out against a groaning shelf of books on energy, sparkling with sweep, unforgettable characters, and thematic coherence. Yergin coined the phrase “Hydrocarbon Man,” to describe how reliant the human race had become on oil, and devised a new way of analyzing history. Before Yergin, we knew that oil was an important commodity. But after Yergin, we realized it was a central factor in virtually every major event of the 20th century, including both world wars, the drastic shifts of consumer tastes, who was allies with whom, and why — simply put, no longer could our era be examined without considering the role of oil. Yergin had no ax to grind, only a vitally important, rip-roaring story to relate. For the skeptical among us, there were 60 pages of detailed footnotes to study,including dozens of on-the-record interviews.

This fall, the Penguin Press will publish Yergin’s long-awaited sequel to The Prize. Both Yergin and his associate publisher at Penguin, Tracy Locke, declined to discuss the book because it has yet to be officially placed on the fall list. But Washington is a small town, and Yergin a sizable and garrulous fish in it — people ask, and he talks a lot about the sequel at parties, dinners and gatherings of all types. He has said that it will cover the intervening two decades of energy history — the oil booms in the former Soviet Union, in Brazil and west Africa; the “shale gale,” as he calls the revolution in natural gas production in the United States, and of liquefied natural gas in Qatar and elsewhere; and of course climate change and the work on alternative energy including ethanol, solar, wind and batteries, and the implications of hybrid and electric cars.

The sequel will attract much attention because it doubtlessly will be very good. But another reason is the very different competition. Why We Hate the Oil Companies, by former Shell USA President John Hofmeister, is excellent, but is a present-day policy argument, not a history for the ages. Power Hungry, like Robert Bryce’s previous works, is smart, but also a full-throated screed against the conventional wisdom of the moment. Crude World is an exceptional narrative like all of Peter Maas’ work, but is a travelogue of the oil world and, in the end, does not attempt to be dispassionate.

Then we come to the second-rate works. Last year’s Oil, for instance, is based on what author Tom Bower says were about 250 interviews. The problem is they were almost all not-for-attribution, so — unlike with Yergin — we are left having to trust Bowers’ word. That became problematic for me when the factual errors began to accumulate to an aggravating degree in the former Soviet Union, which takes up much of the text.

I assigned The Prize as the main text last semester in my energy security course at Georgetown.

While the sequel will be a literary event, it will not be without controversy. Yergin and the firm he chairs, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, has spent the last two decades earning millions of dollars a year in fees from the oil companies and executives about whom he is writing. The firm existed while he was writing The Prize, too, but was nowhere near as successful as it became after his Pulitzer. If the sequel were positioned Hofmeister’s way — as a policy-oriented work — it would not be a problem. But that is not Yergin’s style. His books are based on his reputation as a historian. So it will be interesting to see how he manages the material so as to retain the same impartial credibility that suffuses the original.