Fracking is either America’s economic savior or one step further along the staircase to ecological doom. In truth, it may be both things at the same time or neither depending upon who you ask and when you ask the question.
There is no doubt, however, that fracking—the process by which hydraulic pressure is used to create numerous small fractures dispersing from a bore hole—is controversial. What Russell Gold attempts to do in The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World is clarify some of the misconceptions about the industry in general and put a face to a dynamic that seems to dominate the headlines.
First, fracking as a concept is not new. The technology to “frack” a well has existed almost as long as oil and gas men, make no mistake that this is a male dominated industry, have been drilling holes in the ground to extract dino juice. The actual mechanisms have changed dramatically, replacing explosives with high pressure water and sand.
Second, the concerns are legitimate. To get at most shale gas the bore hole needs to pass through the strata of rock that many aquifers reside. To ensure that this underground water is not contaminated by escaping gas the well needs to be “cemented.” If you remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster and a score of other incidents where wells have failed miserably you will understand that this process if riddled with potential errors. In the race to pull gas out of the ground as fast as possible or get wells drilled before lease terms lapsed, frackers have regularly failed to follow the industry’s best practices and regulators have not held their feet to the fire in order to drive better behavior. While some people were getting rich and our homes were cheaper to heat a lot of holes got put into the ground that will impact our environment for generations to come.
Third, the change wrought by the expansion of natural gas supplies in the United States is somewhat uncharted territory. The U.S. was supposed to both consume more natural gas and produce less as the twenty-first century progressed, yet the opposite happened. Efficiency and production shifts away from natural gas flat lined domestic demand while domestic production soared. Between shale gas and unconventional oil the U.S. is producing more fossil fuels than it has in many decades, which is dramatically reshaping the economy in ways that may not be sustainable.
Lastly, the story of fracking is one about personalities. No single person dominates the story in The Boom more than Aubrey McClendon, the deposed founder of Chesapeake Energy Corporation. Chesapeake was one of the single biggest proponents of fracking and natural gas from the outset of the boom. Its fortunes were made and lost on the backs on the price of natural gas and the markets, which may or may not have been manipulated by people close to McClendon.
Toward the end of the book there is an interesting side bar about the odd marriage of McClendon and Carl Pope, who at the time of the story was the Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Perhaps in exchange for promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel to wean the world off of coal McClendon became one of the Sierra Club’s largest donors. Talk about an odd couple. When Michael Brune took over as executive director the decision was made to cut ties with McClendon at great cost to the Sierra Club’s coffers.
Gold’s book is a breezy, not overly technical, account of how an obscure process to extend the life of oil and gas wells turned out to fundamentally alter the conversation about energy in America. Given how dependent our lifestyle and economy is on hydrocarbons sucked from the ground there can be few stories more central to the history of modern America.