By KEVIN BEGOS
The once-obscure oil- and gas-drilling process known as fracking has generated hundreds of billions of dollars and considerable dissent, as communities and experts argue over how to balance the vast amounts of money at stake with environmental and health risks.
In “The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World,” Russell Gold brings new clarity to a subject awash in hype from all sides.
“The Boom” is a thoughtful, well-written and carefully researched book that provides the best overview yet of the pros and cons of fracking. Gold quietly leads both supporters and critics of drilling to consider other views, and that’s a good thing.
A longtime energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Gold has an impressive range of knowledge, and his clear prose makes wonky topics such as well casings and methane leaks understandable. But even more important, he brings the fracking battles to life with personal stories that go beyond stereotypes.
For example, Gold’s left-wing parents bought some rocky Pennsylvania farmland in the early 1970s with a group of like-minded friends, expecting it to be a quiet refuge from the big city. It was that, but also turned out to be sitting on top of vast deposits of natural gas. Gold’s parents ponder what they could gain or lose with drilling, see how neighbors feel and ultimately decide to sign a lucrative Marcellus Shale lease.
Gold writes that fracking presents energy companies and landowners with a variety of options and challenges, and people respond differently. Some embrace drilling. Some resent it. Many have mixed feelings, but in a modern society that uses vast amounts of energy, the fracking boom isn’t going away any time soon.
Gold captures the genius and the failings of George Mitchell, the so-called father of fracking. Mitchell’s small Texas company experimented with fracking for years while big-energy companies scoffed and ultimately reaped a billion-dollar payoff.
But when state regulators found evidence that his poor drilling practices contributed to ruined private water wells in the early 1990s, Mitchell fought the lawsuits tooth and nail, and ultimately paid only token fines. And despite his fracking windfall and an interest in sustainable communities, Mitchell failed to invest in the next frontier of renewable energy. He just wasn’t interested.
“The Boom” contains a good recap of how the Sierra Club went from embracing fracking and taking tens of millions of dollars in secret donations from Chesapeake Energy to opposing the process. The chapter “Everyone Comes for the Money” illuminates the vast scale and impact of the Bakken shale-oil boom in North Dakota, and other sections cover climate change and the basic geology of shale rock, which can hold either oil or gas.
Gold rightly notes that the end result of fracking “has been staggering and transformative,” but adds a caution.
Since regulations and even drilling technology are still evolving, “it’s too soon to declare victory in fracking,” and Gold notes that when the drilling boom began, “the unofficial policy was to drill first and ask questions later. How well those questions are heeded will likely determine whether we look back on the shale revolution with relief or regret.”