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Review of a book on the people who made the shale gas revolution

My review of Gregory Zuckerman’s book The Frackers appeared in The Times on 23

In the long tradition of serendipitous mistakes that led to
great discoveries, we can now add a key moment in 1997. Nick
Steinsberger, an engineer with Mitchell Energy, was supervising the
hydraulic fracturing of a gas well near Fort Worth, Texas, when he
noticed that the gel and chemicals in the “fracking fluid” were not
mixing properly. So the stuff being pumped underground to crack the
rock was too watery, not as gel-like as it should be.

Steinsberger noticed something else, though. Despite the mistake
in mixing the fracking fluid, the well was producing a respectable
amount of gas. Over a beer at a baseball game a few weeks later he
mentioned it to a friend from a rival company who said they had had
good results with watery fracks elsewhere. Steinsberger attempted
to persuade his bosses to try removing nearly all the chemicals
from the fluid and using mostly water. They thought he was mad
since everybody knew that, while water might open cracks in
sandstone, in clay-containing shale it would seal them shut as the
clay swelled.

Steinsberger was stubborn enough to persist, and got his way by
pointing out how cheap water is. He could save more than $200,000
per well by leaving out the gels and about 95 per cent of the
chemicals. “The idea was crazy at the time. He had guts, no one
else would have even thought of doing it,” said a colleague. Three
wells were fracked with “slick water” in May 1997. The results were
only mediocre at first, but gradually the recipe got better and
better and once the new watery mixture was combined with horizontal
drilling and “multi-stage” fracks, astonishing quantities of gas
began to pour out of the shale.

The world energy scene was transformed. In America, gas is
superabundant and getting cheaper; it’s not running out any time
soon; it’s taking market share from coal, thus cutting carbon
dioxide emissions; chemical and manufacturing industries are
“re-shoring” from overseas at a breakneck pace; Russia and Iran are
no longer able to push up gas prices; the same technology applied
to oil is reducing America’s thirst for oil imports, possibly to
zero within ten years. A few years ago I could not interest editors
in shale gas: now it’s all the rage.

The Frackers documents the bloody-minded stubbornness
that made all this possible. Steinsberger’s refusal to accept
conventional wisdom was one of many such stories. His boss George
Mitchell tried for years and years, in the teeth of often fierce
opposition from his own board, to prove that he could get gas out
of shale in Texas. A similarly stubborn self-made Oklahoman named
Harold Hamm did the same for oil from shale in North Dakota, once
again having to stick to his guns for years before the breakthrough

At the other end of the social scale, an aristocratic Lebanese
immigrant named Charif Souki, bored of starting fashionable
restaurants and aware that American gas was running out, set out to
raise billions to build a terminal to import liquefied gas from the
Middle East. When shale gas came along, he then abruptly
about-turned to spend billions switching the facility into an
export terminal. Though not directly about fracking, Souki’s tale
is about its far-reaching implications.

This is a story of innovation as perspiration. There are few
Eureka moments, just lots of incremental steps. The people who
created the shale gas revolution, and their gutsy backers in the
financial markets, sank billions of dollars into often fruitless
gambles over long periods before eventually reaping rich rewards.
It is a reminder that innovation is neither easy nor cheap nor
inevitable. To do what these wild-catters did against the
background of expensive and hyper-cautious regulation, as envisaged
here in Europe, would have been utterly impossible.

Yet we in Europe can now benefit from their efforts. They
reduced the use of chemicals by 95 per cent to very low levels;
they proved that significant earthquakes or the contamination of
aquifers by fracking are both almost impossible; that methane
leakage is no worse than in conventional gas drilling; that the
time and cost spent in fracking a well can be greatly reduced with
experience. We can come in, in other words, when others have shown
how effective, safe and affordable slick-water fracking in shale
is. And we in Britain have thicker, richer shales than perhaps
anybody else in the world.

Gregory Zuckerman tells the story of the shale revolution well.
He has an eye for detail and a flair for narrative that makes it
highly readable. He is a financial reporter by trade, so the book
focuses more on the financing of the gas industry than I would have
liked and less on the geology and technology. His geological
weakness is illustrated by a line where he implies that coal is
derived from marine life, rather than from terrestrial forests.

And at the end of the book, there is a sudden and rather hurried
account of the environmental opposition to shale gas that, in
attempting to show “balance”, gives the protesters far too much
credit. He fails to challenge many of the myths they have
promulgated about water contamination, gas leakage and other
problems. It is as if he came back to New York from Texas and
Oklahoma to be told by a green-tinged editor in a restaurant
(air-conditioned with electricity made from gas) to please put in
some anti-fracking stuff so she could stay socially acceptable at
(gas-cooked) dinner parties in (gas-warmed) duplex apartments on
the (gas-lit) Upper East Side.

We are living through a disruptive innovation as far-reaching as
the steam engine or the discovery of petroleum. It deserves a
detailed chronicle of who made it possible and how, with all the
twists and turns along the way. Zuckerman’s book, despite some
minor flaws, is an excellent first draft of the history of

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times