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At the rate he’s going, our president will soon be taking credit for the discovery of natural gas.
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This is a claim put forth in December by the Breakthrough Institute in a paper entitled “Decades of Government Funding Behind Sale Revolution.” Breakthrough is the brainchild of Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of the 2003 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” (and subsequent book), in which they argued that environmentalism had become too “timid” and “complaint-based” and should leverage global warming to become grandiose and ambitious once again. “The Era of Small Thinking is Over” is their slogan. Naturally such a group needs a bigger government to fulfill its plans and so it spends time trying to show government is responsible for all good things.
Most people who know the history of fracking technology give credit to George P. Mitchell, the Texas wildcatter who spent twenty lonely years trying to pry gas out of the Barnett Shale with his pioneering technology. Breakthrough corrals Dan Stewart, however, a former vice president at Mitchell Energy who is willing to give the federal government some credit. “They did a hell of a lot of work, and I can’t give them enough credit for that,” says Stewart, obviously with an eye on the next Department of Energy grant. “DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”
DOE’s involvement, it turns out, consisted mainly of research done in the 1970s by the Carter Administration during the “Energy Crisis.” The 1976 Eastern Gas Shale Project mapped fields in Appalachia and made some early estimates of the potential of shale gas deposits. Mitchell later drew on this research in tackling the Barnett.
We got the DOE and GRI involved in the Barnett in the early 1990s. [The GRI is the Gas Research Institute, the private research arm of the gas industry.] Mitchell hadn’t wanted to get them involved because we were trying to understand it and didn’t want competition for the Barnett until we had a handle on what we were doing.
By the early 1990s, we had a good position, acceptable but lacking knowledge base, and then Mitchell said, “Okay, I’m open to bringing in DOE and GRI” in 1991.
DOE participation involved paying one-third the cost of the first horizontal well and contributing to the development of microseismic mapping techniques at the Sandia National Laboratory. “The DOE gave money to the GRI, and the GRI kept DOE updated,” Stewart recalls. But while the DOE was putting up money here and there, it was Mitchell who bore the brunt of the risks:
Mitchell had the money to invest in R&D. And he had the vision. He had people in the company saying this is bulls—t, this is wasting our money, you’re using our retirement money on something that’s no good. They’d say, “Dan, if Barnett is the best thing we have, then we don’t have s—t.”
Breakthrough did not interview Mitchell, although he might have shed a little more light on the situation.
So does all this mean that President Obama can claim credit for the shale boom as well? Or is this just a case of victory having a thousand fathers?
CNN unleashed a “truth squad” after the President’s speech and came to the following conclusion:
Federal research helped boost shale research in the last decades of the 20th century, particularly in the 1970s. But private industry originated the technology and picked up the slack as federal investments in research waned.
Most fascinating of all, however, is a single bland sentence in the Breakthrough report that describes one of the federal government’s earliest attempts to unlock gas from shale deposits:
The U.S. for years funded radically experimental efforts, including large explosions underground, that were too expensive and risky for private firms to do.
As CNN discovered, it’s a little more interesting than that. These early experiments were nuclear explosions:
[O]ne series of tests in the late 1960s and early 1970s raises eyebrows today. In the ultimate “fracking,” the U.S. government attempted three times to use nuclear bombs to open up subterranean gas formations in the Rocky Mountains — two in western Colorado and one in New Mexico. The tests produced less gas than predicted, and what was freed was radioactive.
I say let’s let Obama take credit for that one.
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