Sep 182011
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How will mankind keep the lights on and the temperature down?

AS THE American presidential election approaches, expect to hear plenty of talk in the months ahead about “energy independence”. Some candidates may also express fears over “peak oil”. The merits and terrors of nuclear power will be discussed. Anthropogenic climate change, or Republican denials of it, already has been. Energy is a critical issue in today’s political debate—as is only appropriate. Providing sufficient energy to seven billion increasingly affluent humans without burning up the planet may be humanity’s greatest challenge. “What is at stake”, writes Daniel Yergin, “is the future itself.”

Mr Yergin’s previous book, “The Prize”, a history of the global oil industry, had the advantage of an epic tale and wondrous timing. Years in the making, it was published, to critical and popular acclaim in 1990, two months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thereby putting Saudi Arabia’s oilfields in peril. “The Quest”, as its more open-ended title suggests, is a broader and more ambitious endeavour. It is, first, an account of the many ways in which people have sought to produce energy—by burning fossil fuels, harvesting the wind, brewing biodiesel and trapping the sun’s heat. It is also an analysis of the increasingly fraught political context in which this business is conducted, especially with regard to three big and longstanding fears: energy scarcity, energy security and, more and more, the environmental ruin that energy can cause.

The first is nothing new. People have been warning of peak oil almost since they began putting the stuff into barrels in Pennsylvania in 1859. Both world wars saw surging demand for oil—in inflation-adjusted terms America’s highest ever petrol prices were in 1918—and both ended amid dark predictions that it was running out. Mr Yergin counts five such scares in all. Yet there is plenty of oil left, with perhaps only a fifth of the world’s endowment so far produced. Indeed estimates of the remaining reserves keep growing. This is proof of something the doomsayers routinely discount, the wonderful combination of human ingenuity and market forces.

As oil prices have risen, from less than $10 a barrel in the mid-1980s to nearly $150 in 2008, so oilmen have got much better at retrieving more oil from smaller deposits and remoter places. The digitalisation of oil production will make far more oil recoverable from any field. The complex deepwater drilling recently perfected by Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled company, has suddenly raised the prospect of Brazil becoming one of the world’s biggest producers. Refinements in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, whereby water and sand are squirted at high pressure into shale beds, have made massive reserves of American gas available—sufficient to maintain current levels of production for a century. Such breakthroughs do not end concerns over scarcity because the coming surge in global energy demand, chiefly from Asia, will be massive. Between 2006 and 2010 China doubled its capacity for electricity generation; between 2010 and 2030 India’s electricity consumption is expected to increase fivefold. Yet peak oil and gas look to be many decades off.

That exacerbates the other worries. In the realm of energy security, a nuclear-armed Iran, holding its oil-rich region to ransom, looms large. The possibility of a cyber-attack on the world’s ever more interlinked energy system is another concern. Yet these threats seem to be dwarfed, in Mr Yergin’s analysis, by global warming. Burning fossil fuels has sent the atmospheric carbon-dioxide level rocketing. In 1958, when an American scientist, Charles Keeling, began measuring carbon-dioxide levels on a volcano in Hawaii, it was around 315 parts per million; half a century later, it was about 387 parts per million. Stopping the increase at 450 parts per million—when the climate is generally expected to be no more than two degrees warmer than in pre-industrial times—is the world’s ambition. How likely is this?

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