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'The Prize': Tracing 'Hydrocarbon Man'

April 02, 1991|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His entrance to the petroleum world was oblique. He is a writer who learned narrative style from his journalist father, Irving Yergin, who died in 1986. His mother, Naomi Yergin, is a painter and sculptor. Dan Yergin was student body president at Beverly Hills High, holds a B.A. in English literature from Yale and was a Marshall Scholar in international relations at Cambridge, where he earned a Ph.D.

He was an established magazine journalist and newspaper opinion-page contributor before writing his first book, "Shattered Peace," about the origins of the Cold War. It sparked his interest in the combination of energy and political power. "Energy Future" opened the world of energy and politics, and Yergin formed a consulting company. The firm now has offices in Paris, Oslo, San Francisco, Washington and Cambridge, Mass.

"I decided in the early '80s that what made sense for me to do was combine my interest in international politics and my identity as a storyteller with this particular subject (energy)," he says.

That's when he began "The Prize," a mammoth historical account of how oil has shaped the modern world, the fate of nations and individual lives.

"One reason the book took so long to write," Yergin says, "is that it was a constant process of discovery, and along the way I fell in love with a lot of the characters." The book's publication was a drama in itself: Yergin had missed two deadlines at Simon & Schuster and acknowledges that "there was a danger that I would work on it forever.

"But I had read so many books that were overtaken by events that I sort of had my antenna out about the next problem areas and last March I started to get signals: It became clear that Saddam Hussein was moving into this role to dominate the Gulf."

He did some final revising, finished the epilogue and was in London reading proofs when Iraq invaded Kuwait, validating his instincts.

"The book coincided with people's need to know," Yergin says. "Here was this crisis and there was no framework for it."

Critics agree that Yergin has not only provided a framework, but a readable one.

"I'm right up there on the bestseller list with Millie the White House Dog and 'Iron John' and 'The Inner Child," chuckles the author. "I think people are surprised that a history of the oil industry can be a damned good book to read."

Hollywood producer Jonathan Taplin, whose Trans Pacific Films has acquired television rights to "The Prize," thinks it will be equally compelling as a nonfiction miniseries: "It's a way of looking at the last 140 years of world history through a prism that can help you understand the world and how the economics of the oil business is such a powerful force. We talked about why his own optimism has been tempered--how solar couldn't compete with $15 barrel oil."

Taplin hopes to start production in mid-May on a series he thinks will enlarge understanding of crucial environmental trade-offs.

"What 'The Prize' says, is that it's not enough to have good science or righteous belief in the environment," he says. "You have to understand how power and economics affect policy. You may have perfected a battery for an electric car, but if you don't figure out how Wall Street works with Washington you'll be sitting there with that battery until the year 2010."

Yergin, who worried about sounding sexist when he coined the phrase Hydrocarbon Man-- "It didn't work as person, "--maintains a wait-and-see attitude about the hydrocarbon future:

"In a world approaching 6 billion people by the end of the decade, ultimately there will be an end to our hydrocarbon society because we are going to run out of it, in some fashion," he says. "But ironically, in the last six years our (knowledge of) reserves has increased by 40%--most of it in the Persian Gulf."

But even as the Hydrocarbon Society continues to operate on oil, he foresees the growing environmental movement as the paramount challenge. "For most of its history the oil business has been under attack," he says, "because of scandals like Teapot Dome or suspicions of market manipulation."

But today the assault comes from a different direction and the consequences of hydrocarbon combustion--smog and air pollution, acid rain, global warming and ozone depletion--threaten the very "fate of the planet itself," he writes. "Though there is a widespread sentiment that environmental improvement is essentially 'free,' merely a matter of regulation, this is not likely to be the case. There will be a significant, if not easily calculable, price tag."

This environment-versus-economy tension will have a much greater bearing on the future than finite supplies of oil, Yergin maintains. He foresees a decade of bitter debates about offshore drilling, domestic refining, power-plant location and automobile fuel efficiency.

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