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The Rough Guide to Frackistan

Meet the unsung heroes and reckless pioneers who tranformed the American energy sector.

By May 2014Comments

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, should rank alongside the smartphone as this young century’s most transformative technology. Over the past decade, so much oil and gas has been unlocked from previously impervious rock that America’s generation-long energy crisis has all but ended. Instead of a crippling strategic vulnerability—dependence on foreign oil—we now have a potentially exportable gas and oil surplus that could be wielded against petro-thugs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Yet fracking has gotten a small fraction of the media attention lavished on digital devices and their creators—even as the electricity that juices up all those gadgets now comes increasingly from natural gas, in a dramatic shift from environmentally dirtier coal. The simple fact is that our media, and as a consequence the rest of us, don’t much give a frak about fracking. So are we missing a good fracking story? Russell Gold’s The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (Simon and Schuster) tells not only a good story but one so rich in ironies and paradoxes that it’s easy to see why popular culture and the chattering class have yet to digest it. As the Austin-based senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Gold was an eyewitness to most of this revolution, and he interlaces his narrative of technological breakthroughs, financial shenanigans, and environmental conundrums with illuminating scenes from a beat reporter’s notebook. Few people in the oil and gas business, much less journalists and politicians, saw the boom coming. Yet over the course of a few years, a “collaboration between shale drillers, millions of landowners, and Wall Street moneymen created a national energy policy.” How that happened is both a revelatory and a cautionary tale.

We often conceive of technological progress as a succession of hero-inventors like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, or Steve Jobs, who built great business empires with revolutionary, fully formed visions of consumer products no one else had even imagined. But that’s not the story of fracking, which was brought to fruition by a long line of tinkerers and engineers who routinely missed the business opportunities that they helped create. The basic concept of fracturing subterranean rock to release the oil trapped inside dates back to the 1860’s “petroleum torpedo”—a nitroglycerin bomb set off deep inside wells that markedly increased the flow of oil. In the thirties, acid was pumped into wells to similarly create fissures in oil-bearing limestone, a technique supplanted a decade later by the “hydrafrac treatment.” This involved pumping a gel made of crude oil, solvents, chemicals, and sand down a well under high pressure, then pumping it out and waiting for the oil to flow.

By the mid-fifties, more than 100,000 oil wells—many of them existing wells thought to be exhausted—had been treated with hydrafrac gels. One early practitioner, Houston oilman George Mitchell, had the scientific hunch that a vast reservoir of fossil fuel was trapped beneath Wise County, north of Fort Worth—and became a billionaire by fracking gas and oil out of subterranean sandstone. In the eighties, with his existing wells on the verge of depletion, Mitchell theorized that yet another fortune in natural gas was trapped within the layer of much denser shale beneath the sandstone. But over the next fifteen years, as Mitchell’s engineers attempted to profitably frack what came to be known as the Barnett Shale, they were invariably thwarted by the nearly impermeable chalkboard-hued rock, which, unlike far more porous sandstone, became clogged with the fracking gels then in use.  

Gold is an impeccable researcher who relies heavily on primary sources like the Texas Railroad Commission archives in addition to his own interviews, and in The Boom he pieces together the untold story of fracking’s biggest breakthrough. In 1998 Nick Steinsberger, an unheralded (then and since) young petroleum engineer working for Mitchell, had the idea to pump more than a million gallons of water, mixed with chemicals and sand, into one of the company’s wells. As he suspected, the water mixture didn’t clog the Barnett Shale like the viscous gels did, and the gas came “screaming out.” Gold observes that it had been 52 years—an eon in technological evolution—since the first hydrafrac treatment, and suddenly Steinsberger “had reinvented it and given birth to the modern frack industry.” Yet Steinsberger never received a bonus from Mitchell, or even a congratulatory call. 

In turn Mitchell missed the real boom when he sold his company to Oklahoma City–based Devon Energy, in 2001. Devon engineers quickly added the final piece of the Barnett Shale puzzle, perfecting a little-used technique called horizontal drilling that vastly increases the output of wells drilled into a relatively shallow layer of shale like the Barnett.

If the evolution of fracking technology is a tale that unfolds over generations, with bit players assuming major roles, the business side of the story introduces a character of Shakespearean ambition and flaws: Oklahoma City energy entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon. “To understand the rise of fracking,” Gold writes, “it is necessary to understand how McClendon, a financial engineer, came to dominate an industry once led by petroleum engineers.” The scion of a well-connected Oklahoma family, McClendon cut his teeth as a landman, buying up mineral rights from small landowners. In 1989 he started his own company, Chesapeake Operating, which struggled until McClendon correctly bet in 2000 that natural gas prices would soar—a prophecy fulfilled in large part because of criminal manipulation by Texas companies. He far less accurately forecast an acute natural gas shortage over the next decade, and Chesapeake was feverishly buying up gas leases and wells when McClendon noticed what Devon and a few other independents were doing in the Barnett Shale. 

The former landman charged ahead of his more deliberate competitors in what Gold calls “the great shale land grab,” acquiring leases by the hundreds of thousands and drilling them at an unheard of pace; between 2004 and 2011 Chesapeake drilled more wells than any other energy company in the world. By the time the economy cratered in 2008, McClendon was the nation’s highest-compensated CEO, with a billion-dollar personal fortune. But Chesapeake’s success was extremely leveraged; the company was $13 billion in debt and required tens of billions more to maintain its frantic pace of leasing and drilling. The money kept rolling in, though, supplied by foreign investors who happily gobbled up more of the sorts of creative financial products that had already brought Wall Street crashing down. 

McClendon’s hyperkinetic business model literally transformed America’s energy landscape—and, in one of this story’s many ironies, put him out of a job. As Chesapeake expanded into emerging shale plays such as the Marcellus, which extends from West Virginia and Ohio into New York, the bounty of gas surpassed any credible expectation. “This surge of new gas stood in stark contrast to what McClendon and others in the industry thought was going to happen,” Gold writes. “But McClendon kept his foot on the accelerator, pushing the gas market in the United States from shortage to glut. This change ended up collapsing gas prices. He was hoisted by his own petard.” In 2013 Chesapeake’s board ousted McClendon from the company he had created.

McClendon left as his legacy an environmental paradox that will shape our energy policy for decades to come. In 2006 the giant electrical utility TXU received a thumbs-up from Governor Rick Perry to build eleven new coal-fired power plants. But early the next year the controversial proposal was met with a withering “Coal Is Filthy” statewide ad campaign—funded by none other than McClendon—which was instrumental in persuading TXU to scrap the plan. Amid rising concern about global warming, McClendon argued that substituting cleaner-burning natural gas for coal as our primary electricity generator would significantly reduce our carbon footprint. That environmental vision, however self-serving, has proved more enduring than McClendon’s fortune; our greenhouse gas emissions have indeed declined in recent years. Unfortunately, coal isn’t the only competitor that has been walloped by natural gas. Relatively inexpensive gas-generated electricity has made it more difficult for much cleaner, renewable sources such as wind and solar to compete on price. Fracking “extends the age of fossil fuels for decades,” Gold observes, noting that this poses “a profound challenge to the climate.”

There are also the more immediate environmental and quality-of-life issues posed by an industry that has converted vast swaths of America into “Frackistan,” with 15 million of us now living within a mile of a fracked well. The “mobile factories” that roll into our exurbs and suburbs in great truck convoys loaded with sand, water, chemicals, and drilling gear are more than just an aesthetic problem for their new neighbors; they’ve left behind more than 100,000 freshly drilled and fracked wells with an environmental impact that has yet to be determined. Here Gold, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, does his most inquisitive and personal reporting, wandering from Fort Worth suburbs to his own parents’ Pennsylvania farm—recently fracked by Chesapeake—in search of answers. 

Gold discovers that one of the biggest environmental risks of fracking is the use of the same sort of poorly cemented well casing, intended to seal the space around the pipe, that allowed the Deepwater Horizon to blow out—and which in the typical fracked well can allow chemicals and harmful gas to seep into groundwater and the air. But after tracking down a seventies-vintage device that could inexpensively reveal defects in a cement seal, Gold is told that such testing would slow the pace of drilling in an industry that believes that “if there’s a problem, we’ll fix it later”—when it has become everyone’s problem. 

Nevertheless, Gold concludes that if the fracking industry can slow down just a bit, the near-term environmental challenges are manageable. As for the long term, he splits the difference between two camps—the fossil-fuels-forever crowd and the renewables-now supporters—by proposing that we “think of natural gas like methadone. It’s a way for an energy-addicted society to get off dirtier fuels and smooth out the detox bumps.” But if Gold’s metaphor reflects an emerging consensus among thoughtful energy policy wonks, his own twisting narrative suggests that the road ahead could well take another surprising turn.

The Boom illustrates how dramatically America’s energy equation has been rewritten in less than a decade, all because of a crucial tweak to a languishing, half-century-old technology. Today, with gas prices rising and solar power experiencing an unexpected surge, a few improvements to another old technology—perhaps the batteries needed to store excess solar power generated during daylight—could be a game changer of a different sort. “As with many revolutions throughout history,” Gold cautions of the upheaval he so authoritatively chronicles, “once change is set in motion, the end result can be unexpected.”

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