Yergin on Oil

Lynne Kiesling

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Daniel Yergin has a thorough, thoughtful essay on oil: There Will Be Oil. It’s largely a reflection on “peak oil” ideas, and how innovation and technological change have reduced the cost of identifying and accessing more oil reserves:

This is actually the fifth time in modern history that we’ve seen widespread fear that the world was running out of oil. The first was in the 1880s, when production was concentrated in Pennsylvania and it was said that no oil would be found west of the Mississippi. Then oil was found in Texas and Oklahoma. Similar fears emerged after the two world wars. And in the 1970s, it was said that the world was going to fall off the “oil mountain.” But since 1978, world oil output has increased by 30%.

Just in the years 2007 to 2009, for every barrel of oil produced in the world, 1.6 barrels of new reserves were added. And other developments—from more efficient cars and advances in batteries, to shale gas and wind power—have provided reasons for greater confidence in our energy resiliency.

Much of Yergin’s essay is an intellectual history of the peak oil concept, and how economic dynamism (both price signals and innovation) are creating a world in which that theory is increasingly irrelevant, largely because of its assumption of the irrelevance of such economic aspects of oil.