'The Quest': A review of Daniel Yergin's epic oil tome

— -- As Americans build bigger and bigger mansions, design taller and taller skyscrapers, drive larger and larger SUVs, power more and more appliances, and citizens in other nations such as China develop residential and commercial needs that expand each year, can the Earth yield enough oil to fuel such growth?

Daniel Yergin is an expert on such matters, and he says the answer is yes, at least for a long, long time. At the end of 2009, "The world's proved oil reserves were 1.5 trillion barrels, slightly more than at the beginning of that year," Yergin says in The Quest. He seems certain "that the world is clearly not running out of oil. Far from it. The estimates for the world's total stock of oil keep growing."

But while optimistic, Yergin is no Pollyanna, no single-minded driller without an appreciation of the costs that oil exploration, drilling, transportation and consumption extract.

As a result, The Quest is a book — a tour de force, really — that evaluates the alternatives to oil so broadly and deeply that the physical tome could double as a doorstop.

Plenty of readers live a "black-box" existence. They don't really understand how skyscrapers stay upright, how a sirloin steak reaches our dinner plate (food appears magically in supermarkets, right?) and how the lights come on at the flip of a wall switch in the bedroom. Yergin's book about energy past, present and future, if studied carefully, will remove the black-box mentality at the light switch.

Twenty years ago, Yergin completed his book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. That book became the standard guide for a lay audience to learn about what we loosely refer to as "the oil industry." It won accolades; it served as the basis for an oft-watched television series.

The Quest pretty much picks up where The Prize left off. Like The Prize, the new book is fact-filled — and though well written, requires lots of brain power and lots of time to complete. It is best read slowly, perhaps one chapter per day maximum, if the goal is to actually absorb the rich detail and sometimes complicated workings described by Yergin.

Fuel choices by governments, manufacturers, individual consumers and entrepreneurs willing to invest in big-ticket change will obviously determine the future quality of life in nation after nation — and might even determine if life on Earth will become extinct sooner rather than later.

Whether to depend on oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear-generated power, renewables (energy driven by the sun or the wind, for example) is not at all obvious. A decision driven by monetary factors will come out differently than a decision driven by environmental factors.

A realistic calculation of energy conservation is vital to the decision making, too. If individuals choose to use significantly less electricity in their homes, businesses and automobiles, the impact could be huge. But who can predict how many individuals are willing to conserve, thereby reducing their perception of a comfortable existence?

Recent history yields a pessimistic outlook about reducing energy consumption by most humans; selfishness seems to trump sacrifice again and again. Not even energy optimists like Yergin can find great solace in the me-first attitudes of so many privileged, educated men and women in the nations generally labeled as "developed."

The book becomes substantially more headache-producing as Yergin does his best to evaluate the undeniable reality of global warming within the framework of fuel choice. Like the best teachers in school classrooms, Yergin sees his primary mission as one of relatively objective education. What each reader does with that useful education is an individual decision, shot through with consequences.

Weinberg is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Mo.