Department of Energy

10 Questions with Author and Energy Expert Daniel Yergin

October 2, 2014

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Secretary Moniz presents the first ever James Schlesinger Medal for Energy Security to Dr. Daniel Yergin. | Photo Courtesy of the Energy Department.

Secretary Moniz presents the first ever James Schlesinger Medal for Energy Security to Dr. Daniel Yergin. | Photo Courtesy of the Energy Department.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin is the first recipient of the James Schlesinger Medal for Energy Security -- an award that goes to an individual whose contributions have advanced our understanding of threats, opportunities and policy changes impacting the energy security interests of the United States. The award honors James Schlesinger, the first Secretary of Energy, who passed away this past year. Dr. Yergin serves on the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board and chaired the Department’s Task Force on Strategic Energy Research and Development. His 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Prize,” became a New York Times number one bestseller and was made into a PBS/BBC documentary.

1.     What sparked your interest in energy?

I was actually finishing a Ph.D. in International Relations, and it was a recognition that these energy issues would be so important in international relations in the position of the United States in the world.

2.     Why do you think it’s important to talk about energy on a global scale?

Energy is not only one of the biggest industries in the world, but it’s fundamental to making the world go around. It involves everything from new technologies to the strategies of nations to political turmoil. So it’s a key factor in shaping our world.

3.     What does being the first recipient of the Schlesinger Medal mean to you?

I am more than honored because I had a tremendous respect for James Schlesinger and for what he accomplished. I learned a lot from him. I was a little intimidated by him because he was such a powerful personality. He was very helpful to me in the books that I’ve written. And he was a man of enormous impact and accomplishments -- really a towering figure. So I’m sort of overwhelmed being the first recipient of this award; it’s not what I would’ve expected.

4.     When you’re writing a book, what is your process?

I really start with the notion that I’m not trying to write a book -- I’m trying to write some paragraphs that float one to the other. But I have a general idea. I’m always looking for the story that will emerge. The emblematic personalities that will emerge that help tell the story.

I knew when I started “The Prize” what kind of book I wanted it to be. I miscalculated a little, I said it would take two years -- it took seven. And “The Quest” took five.

But I try to focus in on one part, get my arms around it, make sense of it, write it and then kind of forget it and move on to the next section. And then depend upon my subconscious to make the connections and the links that tie it together.

And I always love it when I look at something and think, “That looks like a chapter.”

5.     “The Prize” was made into a PBS/BBC television series, as was your later work “Commanding Heights.” What was it like translating a book into a documentary?

It was fascinating because in an hour of television you have about 3,000 words -- that’s like 10 pages. So you realize you need much more emotional connotations to bring to bear to convey a story. You’re writing captions when you’re writing narration.

And also it was the discovery of how important music is to shaping the emotion, but when you’re watching something you’re not really aware of it. The people I worked with on that had been involved in [making the movie] “Chariots of Fire,” and they said if you had seen “Chariots of Fire” without the music, it would’ve been a different movie. So that was a very important element.

It’s like going from one world into another; it is a real process of translation. It’s a lot of fun.

6.     What was the goal of your latest book, “The Quest?”

In “The Quest” I really wanted to lay out the rationale for energy security -- how to think about energy security in the 21st century -- with the idea that the world has grown more complicated since the 1970s and there are new dimensions of energy security that we need to think about: cyber, physical security, and these kind of integrated energy shocks like we saw with Superstorm Sandy. So I think a lot of “The Quest” is really a book that in different ways addresses energy security questions.

7.     How would you describe what an energy economist does?

It’s really trying to understand how energy markets work -- how they interact with government regulation, how they interact with international events and with technology and innovation.

8.     If you could give one piece of energy advice to the world, what would it be?

Focus on security, focus on efficiency, focus on innovation. Try to ensure that energy is a positive thing in the relations among nations rather than a contentious issue.

9.     What are you working on now?

I’ve been looking at different aspects of energy policy, the implications and impacts of this unconventional revolution in oil and gas. And I’m beginning a new book that will look about energy and the changing politics of our planet. I always have to start off a book and underestimate the challenge. I was just thinking this morning, “I just have to get a chapter.”

10.    What is something that most people don’t know about you or your work?

I write these books in longhand -- although not with a quill pen.