View Count: 131 |  Publish Date: April 05, 2014
'The Boom' by Russell Gold
The BoomHow Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the WorldBy Russell Gold(Simon & Schuster; 366 pages; $26)
After decades of decline and stagnation, hydraulic fracturing - or simply fracking - has enabled U.S. oil and gas production to make a surprise turnaround. This boom of shale gas and shale oil has been hailed as a solution to nearly every energy issue. Abundant natural gas could fuel our cars instead of oil, reindustrialize our nation with new steel and plastics factories, and replace coal, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We could export the gas and oil to make more money, create jobs and boost the economy. We could cut reliance on the Middle East. We could use exports to punish Russia, while helping our allies in Europe and Asia. We could achieve the Holy Grail of energy independence.
In all these aspirations there is a bit of truth. But each gets hyped, and collectively they dont all add up. It doesnt seem we can have our shale gas and export it, too - and have it remain cheap and abundant. (Its worth noting that despite the boom, the United States is still a net importer of natural gas, and the worlds second-largest importer of oil, behind China.)
Russell Golds The Boom, authoritative and fairly balanced, is a welcome guide - the best all-around book yet on fracking. Gold has reported on the topic for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade. He also draws on experience. His parents own a farm in Pennsylvania, and they, like thousands of other families, signed a drilling lease.
Given Golds reporting, his parents likely knew far more about what to expect than most other families, many of whom were dismayed by the raucous din of drilling rigs, the tree clearing to make way for pipelines, the sheer scale of activities - and how little control they had over what happened on their own land. Most vexing have been the strange happenings with water wells, which sometimes lost water pressure, or became suffused with enough natural gas to make tap water flammable, or occasionally even exploded. Such problems have been the main reason why many environmentalists have lined up against fracking, trying to force stricter regulations, or to even ban it.
How many of these water problems were caused by drilling for gas is still an open question. Groundwater contamination problems appear unrelated to fracking itself, Gold explains. Instead, the problems are far more likely to be caused by inadequate or faulty cementing around wells. The industry knows how to isolate wells from groundwater. But with weak regulations and lax enforcement, Gold argues, companies have not always taken the time and spent the money to do so.
Efforts to make drilling safer have been fended off by the industry - even by companies directed by men who thought of themselves as environmentalists, like George Mitchell. His company, Mitchell Energy, was the first to figure out how to use fracking to get profitable amounts of natural gas out of shale. Gold tells of how, in the early 1970s, Mitchell became a fan of the eccentric engineer Buckminster Fuller, and grew concerned about limits to resources and population growth.
Yet when Mitchell Energy was charged with inadequately cementing its wells, the company fought efforts to impose stronger regulations and force them to pay fines or damages. Mitchell comes across as concerned about the environment in the abstract, but not when it impinged on his bottom line.
As Gold tells it, the lure of the hunt for natural gas, and a similar level of concern about the environment, drove another of the major players in Golds book: Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. Unlike Mitchell Energy, McClendons company didnt make any advances in technology or engineering. Instead, McClendons great skill, as Gold put it, was that he sold the revolution to the worlds bankers.
Handsome, charismatic and flashy, McClendon is a slick talker who talked up natural gas as a clean alternative to coal (even as he cast doubt on the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change). As Chesapeake made a push into Ohios Utica shale, for example, McClendon described it as one of our biggest discoveries in U.S. history. Yet so far, the Utica shale has remained a minor player in the boom.
McClendon raised tens of billions from Wall Street, catapulting his company from a minor operator to the nations top driller. But his company wound up more than $10 billion in debt, and over the long term has yet to turn a profit on the boom it helped spur forward.
Gold admits the giddiness of a boom can lead to exaggeration, which raises the question of how long it might last. He pours doubt on the supposed hundred-year supply of natural gas that the industry has touted and that President Obama cited in his 2012 State of the Union address. Yet The Boom often echoes the industry statements about a revolution bringing forth enormous and vast amounts of oil and gas.
The books major oversight is that it doesnt delve deeply into estimates of how much oil and gas shale might yield in the long run. Will the boom continue, or go bust? Finding the answer is crucial. We are fossil-fuel addicts, Gold concludes. What happens when drug addicts detox? They can be rash, cranky, even psychotic and dangerous. If the shale boom doesnt deliver all that Americans have been promised, how will the nation react?
Mason Inman is an Oakland journalist who covers climate and energy issues. His book The Oracle of Oil, about the maverick geologist M. King Hubbert, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2015.

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Time: 23:23  |  News Code: 395542  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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