Don’t write off Big Oil: The geopolitics of energy and security

Daniel Yergin’s “The New Map” provides a guide through the energy landscape, but gives short shrift to methane emissions and environmental activism. 

Penguin Random House
“The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations” by Daniel Yergin, Penguin Press, 512 pp.

I’m a sucker for maps. The art of cartography, past and present, is an act of storytelling, a visual guide to a narrative or its point of departure. And when it comes to the global hunt to locate, extract, and transport the far-flung fossil fuels that power our modern lives, it’s sensible to travel with a map. 

Daniel Yergin is well qualified to lead this journey. A Cold War historian turned energy analyst, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1990 tome, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power,” which became a PBS series and is one of several books he’s written on energy and geopolitics. He’s the vice chairman of IHS Markit, a global research company, and has advised the U.S. Department of Energy over four administrations. 

His latest book, “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations,” is an ambitious, pithy survey of the evolving landscape of oil and gas that squeezes in vignettes of a 15th century Chinese navigator, intra-OPEC feuds, and Vladimir Putin’s pique at U.S. frackers. 

Yergin’s contention is that both geopolitical power and the power of hydrocarbons will be transformed by climate policies – but don’t write off Big Oil. “For more than a century, energy – its availability, access, and flows – has been intertwined with security and geopolitics,” he writes.

The transition to cleaner forms of energy, he argues, will be costly, fitful, and disruptive, and some of the technologies that we need are unproven. The map of green energy is a work in progress, one that many countries and companies are vying to draw, as the climate crisis looms. 

“The New Map” starts in the U.S. with the shale revolution – the extraction of fossil fuels from shale rock using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – that turned the world’s thirstiest oil guzzler into a gusher. U.S. output of crude oil tripled between January 2009 and December 2014, and by 2018, the U.S. had overtaken Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest producer. 

This torrent of oil fueled an economic expansion at home and a muscular stance abroad, as the U.S. was no longer beholden to foreign oil. This in turn drove Russia closer to China, a political and commercial alliance lubricated by fossil fuel supply lines. “A relationship that was once based on Marx and Lenin is now grounded in oil and gas,” he writes.

The shale revolution also led to a boom in pipelines across the U.S., some of which – think Keystone XL – became lightning rods for environmental protests. This is where a map comes in handy to grasp exactly how pipeline networks intersect with natural and political boundaries.

Yergin seems nonplussed, however, by the blowback to the pipelines. As he notes, they carry the natural gas that has replaced dirtier fuels to heat homes and generate electricity. In 2007, coal accounted for half of U.S. electricity; it’s now less than a quarter. He treats the success of activists in halting or delaying pipelines as merely symbolic wins.

This skepticism towards activism infuses a book on energy and climate that is geared largely to the former. When oil and gas emissions come up, he offers bland reassurance. The heat-trapping methane that leaks copiously from gas wells rates a single paragraph. Reducing methane emissions “is now a priority for both regulators and industry,” Yergin writes. 

The effects of climate change are absent in this book, perhaps understandably given its focus on geopolitics. But these effects already impinge on the industry that he studies so closely. On Alaska’s North Slope, oil producers now use cooling rods to refreeze the melting permafrost on which their rigs sit.

Yergin takes some enjoyable detours on his geopolitical tour, deftly folding China’s bellicose maritime claims into the historical voyages of Zheng He. Other sketches are less edifying, such as the tangential tale of the trucking magnate who invented container shipping in 1956. 

Whereas “The Prize” overflowed with such characters, the schemers and dreamers who drilled for oil in Arabian deserts and Sumatran jungles, the pickings are slimmer this time. We meet Tesla’s Elon Musk and George Mitchell, a fracking pioneer in Texas, along with a handful of other mavericks. In the “Great Man” school of history, their motives and ambitions matter – as do the technological breakthroughs that underpin their success. 

But it’s possible that the transition to clean energy will turn less on individual pluck and more on the collective arena of policy and politics. The coronavirus pandemic has also upended energy markets and led to speculation that global oil demand may have peaked. The fastest growing occupation in the U.S. is wind turbine service technician. 

Such tectonic shifts are hard to plot. A cartographic representation of a green energy world may resemble a manufacturer’s flow chart more than a global map of pipelines and oil reserves. It could also be what helps safeguard our children’s future on a warming planet.

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