RCEM: Views on Energy News

Global energy markets, geopolitics and petrochemical industry business models have been profoundly altered by the shale revolution in America.  In "The Boom," Wall Street Journal senior energy reporter Russell Gold provides a balanced account of the history, personalities and technology of fracking - the story that transformed the North American energy landscape - and describes in easily understandable prose how previously inaccessible natural gas and oil is extracted from shale on an industrial scale.

The shale revolution resulted from the marriage of two processes.  The first, horizontal drilling, turns traditional vertical wells on their sides to run parallel to the surface for thousands of feet outward from a drill site.  The second, hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a well so it presses against very dense rock, or shale.  Ultimately, the pressure from the water fractures the shale and creates cracks for the mixture to penetrate.  The water drains out and the sand props open the newly-created cracks in the shale, allowing previously-trapped oil and gas to move into the cracks and up the well to the surface.

Fracking itself is not new, though modern shale hydraulic fracking only began in 1998.  In many ways, fracking snuck up on America.  It seemingly occurred overnight; by the time people knew about it, the revolution was well underway.  Opponents have stymied industry efforts to expand into some jurisdictions, such as New York.  In other areas, however, a permissive legal system, economic incentives for individuals and communities, the persistence and ingenuity of a few determined drillers and geologists, and a cultural acceptance of drilling combined to create the playing field for Gold's story.  Over the last decade, techniques have continued maturing to permit today's industrial-scale operations and provide the US with a degree of energy security that hasn't existed since before the 1973 OPEC oil embargo.  In addition, domestic drilling in the US propelled a shift away from coal to gas and drastically shrunk greenhouse gas emissions.

The author frames the book with a personal story of his parents' decision to permit fracking on their Pennsylvania farm.  He portrays the colorful characters behind the oil and natural gas boom in America, lays out early industry excesses that undergird some of today's opposition to fracking and presents the first legal case in the US where a landowner's mineral rights were separated from the surface rights - not completely dissimilar to issues currently under discussion in the UK.  He has empathy for communities affected by shale development - as concerns about noise, water pollution, other environmental impacts, and changes to long-established ways of life are countered by economic windfalls for those directly benefitting from drilling on their property and from the hundreds of thousands of jobs created.

"The Boom" provides valuable perspective to debates in Europe about developing domestic shale resources.  [Interestingly, fracking on conventional wells in Germany dates back to the 1960s, and in France, which bans shale fracking, a virtually identical technique is permitted for geothermal extraction.]  Readers can draw their own parallels and differences between the US and other countries' situations.  But perhaps the author's exploration of his own internal conflict provides the best perspective.  He questions whether the shale revolution delays the development of renewable energies.  And he is uncomfortable with some current industry practices and their effects on the environment.  On the other hand, he sees the benefits of decreased reliance on fuel imports and the environmental benefits of reduced coal consumption due to using cleaner natural gas as a bridge until renewable technologies mature.  "I don't fear fracking," he writes.  "I fear carbon."

Gold highlights the need to "get it right" from an industry standpoint and he believes that it can be done.  He positions himself in the middle, between ardent opponents on one side, and proponents of unofficial policies that support drilling first and asking questions later.  In a recent interview, he stated that he aligned with people saying "This is a golden opportunity.  We shouldn't throw it away, but we have to do it right" - and "do it in a way that we can coexist in communities and with the environment."

Russell Gold performs a service to those who desire to understand a process that is not fully understood by many who are at the forefront of current debates.  "The Boom" is recommended reading for those interested in the world-changing events occurring in North America, and to those who are concerned about Europe's energy future and seek to better inform themselves about fracking. 

The Boom:  How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, by Russell Gold, Simon & Shuster (2014), £15.46/$26, 384 pages.

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