Book considers the pros and cons of fracking

04/20/2014 12:00 AM

04/18/2014 12:39 PM

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, 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 supporters and critics of drilling to consider other views, and that’s a good thing.

A long-time 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 Pennsylvania farmland in the early 1970s with a group of friends that turned out to be sitting on top of vast deposits of natural gas. They decided 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 and reaped a billion-dollar payoff while big energy companies scoffed 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 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.

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. One chapter 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 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.”

Kevin Begos reviewed this book for the Associated Press.

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