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Sunday, May 07, 2017

Review: The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold

Russell Gold is a Wall Street Journal reporter whose family had purchased a small Pennsylvania farm as a retreat from Philadelphia.  His parents were approached by an oil company offering them $400,000 plus royalties for the right to drill under their land. Being old time sixties environmentalists they were reluctant but it’s a lot of money and since almost all their neighbors had bought in they figured they might as well. He returns to their story periodically throughout the book to highlight the personal conflicts people have.

Gold provides a riveting account of the development of fracking from its extraordinary technological success to its environmental impacts.  It’s truly astonishing that this intricate technology has resulted in the United States becoming a net energy exporter barely a decade after “peak oil” had been proclaimed. The book mixes technical details with profiles of the major players, often focusing on the financial details, which can’t be easily separated from the evolution of oil drilling.

It’s perhaps ironic, that most of the anti-fracking environmental antagonism comes from geographical areas not affected by the drilling. Larger cities that depend on natural gas and heating, for example, have become hotbeds of anti-fracking activity, yet those people are little affected by the economic and environmental plusses and minuses of the activity except for lower prices for energy.

Some of the allegiances formed to promote fracking are interesting.  The Sierra Club worked with Chesapeake Energy to fight the development of coal plants in Texas and elsewhere, arguing that global warming was a far greater threat.*  That Chesapeake was giving them substantial amounts of money didn’t hurt either, but the environmental group has become split among those favoring just conservation opposed to some realists arguing that it’s better to focus on energy that reduces the carbon footprint like natural gas and nuclear power. Ironically, the shift to natural gas means the U.S., which hasn’t ratified the Kyoto protocols, will come closer to meeting the reduction in carbon emissions than any of the signatories.

Gold says that’s a very good thing and supports fracking (the reason why it’s now spelled that way as opposed to the more technically popular “fracing” is interesting) but notes the industry and regulators need to work on better sealing of the wells which is where most of the problems arise. Surprisingly, there was no mention of fracking-generated earthquakes, although perhaps being published in 2014, the concern had yet to be raised.

No energy generating process is unopposed.  Dams drown villages; mines are dirty and dangerous; transporting fuel in pipelines, ships, and trains risks spills and fires; drilling is obnoxious, wind generators destroy the landscape and kill birds; and nuclear, in many ways the least harmful, suffers from ignorance of new technology and problems of early technology.

A very interesting read.



*Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has embraced GMOs, nuclear energy, and other technologies, arguing that global warming is the greatest threat.  An interesting article detailing his evolution in thinking is http://e360.yale.edu/features/stewart_brands_strange_trip_whole_earth_to_nuclear_power


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