The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World
by Russel Gold Simon & Schuster Canada

The development of natural gas and oil using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, (“Fraccing,” or “Fracking,” depending on one’s position on it) has been one of the most revolutionary and one of most divisive events in the last hundred years of energy history in North America.  The use of these techniques to extract massive quantities of energy from almost impermeable shale rock thousands of feet underground has spawned unprecedented growth in high-quality energy resources at modest cost and offers probable energy independence to the United States, at the same time that very vocal opposition in many communities raises questions about the environmental impact of development.  Russell Gold has leapt into the middle of this fray, writing a remarkably entertaining, in-depth, and predominately accurate story of the beginning and growth of the techniques of shale development, the fascinating cast of characters involved, and of course, the value and the risks.  In the style of Yergin’s “The Prize” or “The Quest,” Gold has brought to life risk-taking, creativity, deep and searching doubts followed by the raw elation of the gas equivalent of a gusher, spanning six decades.

I found many surprising historical revelations in the book.   In the interests of your being able to be surprised, I do not want my review to be a spoiler.  However, I still would point out a number of things I learned, that jumped out at me:

  • How bad were George Mitchell’s dire financial straits when the Barnett field finally came in?
  • Who really invented slickwater hydraulic fracturing, and why did it work?
  • Who really paired it with horizontal drilling?
  • When government-sponsored experiments tried the nuclear fracs, how did the devices compare with the Hiroshima bomb?
  • And what surprising war-surplus fluid was used for the early fracs (and how do you think it would go over today?) 

I do have to answer the last one, since it sort of startled me.  As Gold explains, the well completions right after World War II were fractured using napalm.  Remember Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now,” going all mushy over the smell of napalm in the morning?  Somehow it’s hard to picture that working out well with today’s environmental protestors.

The big names in shale development are fairly well known:  George Mitchell, Aubrey McClendon, Larry Nichols, or opponents such as Michael Brune of the Sierra Club.  But Gold tells the story of the other key players, less well known but every bit as important:  Nick Steinsberger, Brad Foster, Claude Cooke, among others.

Gold’s tone is often somewhat biased, sort of casting something a cloud of portending doom over the subject of development as he discusses helping his parents decide whether to lease their property for drilling.  He also waxes a bit patronizing in discussing the lives and careers of some individuals who took substantial risks and caused a huge energy breakthrough.  Being a longtime reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a lot of this may just be the pervasive tone of skepticism that goes with being an investigator.  But then throughout, he acknowledges what the natural gas boom has meant to the nation, that it had a lot to do with the 2008 recession not becoming a depression, that it (along with the companion oil development) stands to let U.S. achieve energy independence and stop living in fear of the Middle East, and that when burned, it is a very low-carbon and clean source of fuel.

Regardless of tone, Gold’s exploration of the issues around development appears to be largely thorough and honest, legitimately framing the ongoing tension between energy abundance and development impact.  He illuminates a key aspect of that tension that honestly eluded the natural gas industry for too long, that to an engineer “Fraccing” means the deep subsurface, contained, hydraulic fracturing of rock, while to the general public, “Fracking” means everything from the first truck to the last truck.

There is an extensive discussion of the energy market crisis that occurred in California in 2000-2001, primarily as part of a good bit of sniping at Ralph Eads, the financier who worked with Aubrey McClendon in building Chesapeake Energy into an industry giant.  I admit to a bit of prejudice on my part, since I was there and collaterally involved in that crisis, and Gold’s explanation is tremendously oversimplified to leap to culpability on the part of Eads and his company.  It didn’t quite happen that way, but being ancient history should not undermine the power and engagement offered by Gold’s overall story.

This is in many ways a story of regular folks who became larger than life, and for better or for worse gave us an energy and economic bonanza that—if the U.S. and Canada can maintain a stable and accepted trajectory of development cleanly and safely—can go on for many decades.  Gold correctly explains in great depth how the challenges to hydraulic fracturing have less to do with that process than they do with basic well integrity.  His description of the physical process of well development, where problems can happen and how they are avoided, is accurate and meaningful.

Overall, I would say that anyone genuinely interested in a thorough and entertaining understanding of shale development, how it’s done, what it means, and what questions are raised, should read this book.  It’s well done.

* Rick Smead is Managing Director, Advisory Services, for RBN Energy LLC. He specializes primarily in the natural gas sector, offering expert policy analysis and advice, litigation support, and strategic advice with respect to gas pipelines, potential supplies, and market initiatives.

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