The Frackers - what was the role of the ‘guvmint?'

The US DoE defends its role in unconventional development. Greg Zuckerman begs to differ.

This is not a review of Gregory Zuckerman’s excellent 2013 book The Frackers*, ‘the outrageous inside story of the new billionaire wildcatters.’ If you have not bought it, do so forthwith. It is a great read which certainly plugged many gaps in our understanding of the oil and gas industry over the last several decades.

We report here on an enquiry that stemmed from our reading of The Frackers. That is on the extent to which government-sponsored R&D contributed to the development of shale in the US. Zuckerman makes several references to government backing for early trials of shale-related technologies but attributes the lion’s share of the kudos to free enterprise.

To give the ‘guvmint’ a chance to defend itself we asked the US Department of Energy’s Namrata Kolachalam for its side of the story. ‘During the 1970s and 1980s, the DoE supported research that developed cost-effective horizontal drilling and advanced fracking technologies, proving that the economic development of unconventional gas was possible. In 1975, a public-private joint venture drilled the first Appalachian Basin high-angle Devonian shale directional and in 1986, a DOE-industry joint venture drilled the first air-drilled horizontal shale well. DOE also funded research on the basic science behind fracture mapping and opened the MWX well site0502 for tight sand research in Colorado. From 1978 to1992, DoE put $137 million in the Eastern Gas Shales Research Program which advanced assessment of shale gas resources and led to massive hydraulic fracturing/stimulation and other analyses. In the 1990s, the DoE joined with the Gas Research Institute to fund further crucial breakthroughs. DoE sponsored research helped expand the knowledge and understanding of shale gas and fostered the development of horizontal drilling and advanced hydraulic fracturing, the techniques that the pioneers in the private sector used to unlocked shale’s potential.

We also pinged Zuckerman who kindly came back with the following. ‘The left tries to underplay the role of the risk takers by saying that the government was key to the development but I didn’t find that. It helped to have government support for early advances but the key breakthrough happed in the Barnett by the Mitchell team in the late 1990’s. As for horizontal drilling, as I say in the book, government folks developed that original technique and got the patent for it, so I arguably should have done more about them in the book (though the book already clocked in at almost 500 pages, I didn’t want to overwhelm readers). Of course, the guys in the fields, not the government people in the labs, implemented those advances. But the government did play a key role there.

* Penguin - ISBN 9781591847090.

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