'The Frackers' : a paean to capitalism

Journalist Gregory Zuckerman glorifies the entrepreneurs behind the natural gas bonanza while ignoring environmental issues

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Gregory Zuckerman is fascinated by rich businessmen. The Wall Street Journal reporter's first best-seller, "The Greatest Trade Ever," chronicled the exploits of hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made $15 billion shorting an inflated housing market that sent Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros. and Countrywide Financial the way of the dinosaurs.

By Gregory Zuckerman.
Portfolio Hardcover ($29.95).

Mr. Zuckerman's latest effort, "The Frackers," furthers his obsession with the affluent. It is an examination of six entrepreneurs who went long on American energy at a time when acceptance of America's perpetual reliance on foreign oil represented conventional thinking.

How readers will feel about "The Frackers" will depend on how they respond to this passage near the end of the book: "The successes of the architects of the shale era are attributable to creativity, bravado and a strong desire to get really wealthy. It doesn't get more American than that."

While Mr. Zuckerman does a commendable job chronicling the origins, development and maturation of his heroes in plodding prose, that's as far as his love song goes. He provides little information regarding the consequences of using millions of gallons of water and proprietary concoctions of chemicals to hydraulically fracture oil and natural gas trapped several miles underneath the Earth's surface. What sparse verbiage he devotes to that topic can be summarized as a blunt dismissal of most environmental concerns.

But if you are looking for the present-day take on a romantic rag-to-riches drama reminiscent of the Gilded Age, engaging tales of brave entrepreneurs whose desire to get really wealthy helped them persevere and prosper come boom or bust, look no further than "The Frackers."

Some of the entrepreneurs Mr. Zuckerman portrays are more sympathetic characters than others. George Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant who made a fortune hunting shale gas in Texas' Barnett Shale formation, had a far reaching vision that foresaw America's energy independence.

He is more appealing than Chesapeake Energy's Aubrey McClendon, who was driven primarily by an irrepressible urge to lease more acreage and drill more wells than any other fracker. Mr. McClendon's gluttony eventually got the best of him. His sweetheart deals at the expense of shareholders ultimately led to his ouster.

Another of Mr. Zuckerman's heroes, Cheniere Energy's Charif Souki, sought a fortune based on the popular notion that an energy-starved America would be required to import natural gas as well as oil. The Lebanese immigrant's ventures were threatened by the exploits of the Frackers, who provided an unforeseen abundance of American-made energy.

All the land "The Frackers" grabbed had to be drilled or the leases would go bad. So drill they did, staying true to their credo: too much is not enough. Given the glut of gas, Mr. Souki was inspired by the entrepreneurial imperative and switched gears. He converted Cheniere to a liquid natural gas exporter, becoming the first entrant in a business that a few years earlier no one saw as feasible.

The story Mr. Zuckerman tells is of historic proportions. The U.S. Department of Energy recently reported that U.S. crude oil production topped oil imports in October, the first time that has happened since 1995. The notion that America would come anywhere near to regaining its energy independence was far-fetched just a few years ago. Now it is nearly a reality, thanks in large part to Mr. Zuckerman's heroes.

The author brings valuable perspective to the historic development. Mr. Zuckerman documents how the shale revolution was accomplished without the help of Big Oil, which abandoned domestic exploration for what it presumed to be greener, less risky pastures overseas.

He also notes that hydraulic fracturing has been around for decades and makes a few cursory references to the government's hand in advancing the technology.

However, Mr. Zuckerman devotes scant attention to some other consequences of "The Frackers' " remarkable achievements, particularly the social and environmental impacts. His treatment is tantamount to chronicling the Industrial Revolution strictly from the capitalist's point of view.

If you're looking for a more nuanced history of the fracking revolution, "The Frackers" will leave you disappointed. But if you're in search of homage to capitalism in its rawest form, have at it.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.

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