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Daniel Yergin Examines America's 'Quest' For Energy

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Daniel Yergin Examines America's 'Quest' For Energy

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Daniel Yergin Examines America's 'Quest' For Energy

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

Some residents of upstate New York have been seeing this ad recently. It warns that the state's water supply is headed for ruin.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: New York tap water has always been the best in the world. I love my New York water. In places where gas companies are already using a dangerous process called fracking, like Pennsylvania, the water is cloudy and full of toxic chemicals.

GREENE: The ad is part of an intensifying debate over fracking. That's the process energy companies use to get a certain kind of natural gas out of the ground. And it's one of the many subjects covered in a new book by Daniel Yergin.

In "The Quest," Yergin writes about the ongoing search for sustainable forms of energy. The type of natural gas they're looking for in New York State wasn't even a serious energy source for the U.S. - until recently.

DANIEL YERGIN: Shale gas really has been a revolution that's happened extremely rapidly. Up until 2008, it really wasn't recognized and then it just took off and it's gone from being virtually none of our natural gas production to about 30 percent of our total natural gas production.

GREENE: In the United States?

YERGIN: In the United States.

GREENE: That's so big that fracking for shale gas is reshaping energy policy in the U.S. But it's also raising a lot of concerns about all that drilling. Yergin sits on a Department of Energy committee that's investigating the environmental impact.

YERGIN: One of the things we need is good scientific data about what does it mean for water, can there be a migration - because, of course, the fracking is occurring at a much, much lower level, beneath impermeable rock and is that going to be the source of - if there is methane in the water, or the other key question is, what does it mean for air pollution when you start bringing generators into the area and so forth?

And the industry itself knows that these are issues that it has to deal with, and so I think we're going to see a lot of innovation and a lot of progress to address environmental questions around this.

GREENE: Of course, these questions are new to states like New York and Pennsylvania, where fracking is taking place. We're not talking about Texas, where people are more accustomed to energy development. People in the Northeast have been going through a tough transition.

YERGIN: We see that happening in the state of New York now, where Governor Cuomo opened the door to shale gas production in some of the really poor regions of the state and sees it in terms of economic development.

GREENE: Jobs.

YERGIN: Jobs. You know, it comes down to employment. Shale gas has created hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs in the last five years in the United States. It's brought a billion dollars of revenue into the state government of Pennsylvania.

It's no question that you go into more populated - more people there - and suddenly a lot of trucks appear, there's a lot of development in the area, and it kind of does have a transformative impact.

GREENE: The culture really changes in a way. I mean it - when you're talking about so many people working in the energy sector, and the trucks, as you say, the traffic.

YERGIN: It's trucks, it's the traffic. I mean I think that those are part of the reason for the response to it. So you know, this is a great resource - this is the biggest energy innovation probably in the last 30 years that we've seen. But it has to be done in a way that is both environmentally responsible and also acceptable to the public.

GREENE: You can understand why Yergin thinks this is such a big innovation if you listen to President Obama. Just this March, Mr. Obama touted how there could be a century's worth of shale gas beneath our feet in the U.S. That could give the U.S. a measure of security, reducing that dependence on foreign sources of energy. But the move to shale gas in the U.S. has implications for the whole world.

YERGIN: My personal quest in writing "The Quest" was to try and provide a framework to see how these things all tie together. Indeed, it has become increasingly interconnected.

And so if you wind the clock back to 2008, the United States was going to be a huge importer of liquefied natural gas from the Middle East, from countries like Trinidad, from Angola, from Nigeria, maybe from Russia. That's all off the table because we're now self-sufficient in terms of natural gas, and suddenly that gas that was going to come in cargos in ships to the United States has to find other destinations.

GREENE: You tie things together with shale gas - there's less need for liquefied natural gas in the United States, that means there's more available in Europe, that means perhaps less reliance on Russia. You know, so tie those pieces together...

YERGIN: Well, it's, you know, one domino falls after another, so liquefied natural gas that was going to go to the United States, because tens of billions of dollars had been invested in it - no home in the United States, so it was going to Europe - that meant lower demand for Russian gas.

But then something else happened somewhere else in the world - this awful, terrible accident at Fukushima in Japan. What was going to be the nuclear renaissance is now a much, much, much more uncertain thing. The German chancellor, Merkel, who was a big advocate for stepping up the nuclear program in Germany, changes her mind, really, and says, well, we can't do it, we're going to shut down our nuclear power.

What does that mean? They'll import more natural gas. Where will they import it from? Russia.

GREENE: And so, like dominos, one country changing its energy strategy can set off reverberations around the world. And of course the availability of a new resource can raise questions about a country's energy policy. Take the U.S. - with so much shale gas available over the next hundred years, should the U.S. even bother to keep developing renewables? Yergin says yes.

YERGIN: We need to focus on renewables to start with for security reasons, for diversification reasons. And I go back to what Winston Churchill, when he was head of the British Royal Navy, said before World War I, when he was converting the Royal Navy from safe British coal to oil from Persia, Iran - and people said this is really dangerous, and he said safety in oil lie in variety and variety alone. And I think that's still a fundamental starting point.

GREENE: I'm interested that you use the term energy security as a reason to keep some focus on renewables, even if we have this shale gas breakthrough. Why is that? Are you concerned that our shale gas infrastructure might be hit by enemies?

YERGIN: No, well, I just think in principle that one of the sub-themes of the book is surprise. You know what's going to happen and everybody agrees on what's going to happen and then something else happens and it could be everything from political crises as we've seen that affect oil supply to natural disasters to technological breakthroughs, and that we have a very complex energy foundation that our $14 trillion economy rests upon.

There was a blackout recently in Southern California and Arizona and one of the executives said we never imagined that all these things would happen at the same time. And I just think in general with energy, given how important it is to our economy, we need to be diversified.

You know, one of the big challenges we have is the growth of demand on a global basis. There isn't one single solution that provides the answer.

GREENE: That's Daniel Yergin. He's author of the new book, "The Quest." His last book, "The Prize," won the Pulitzer Prize.

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