Book review

'The Boom': Meet the frackers

Journalist Russell Gold writes an even-handed history of a controversial practice


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Edward A.L. Roberts was a drunken lieutenant colonel for the Union army during the Civil War. Facing court-martial, he offered his resignation, but not before surviving some of the fiercest fighting of the war during the Army of the Potomac's mindless assault up Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862.

During the bombardment preceding the charge, Roberts observed shells exploding in a small canal. Energy from the detonations moved sideways into the walls of the ditch, fracturing them.


"THE BOOM: How Fracking Ignited the
American Energy Revolution and
Changed the World"
By Russell Gold.
Simon & Schuster ($26).

A few years later, Roberts, an inveterate tinkerer, found himself in Oil City, Pa. There, the practical application of his battlefield observation in the birthplace of the oil industry made him the father of hydraulic fracturing.

This history, recounted in Russell Gold's "The Boom," is but one example of the much needed perspective the Wall Street Journal reporter brings to a subject that sorely needs it. Mr. Gold reminds us that fracking is not a new technology and that the energy industry's refinement and use of the technology are consistent with its behavior ever since Col. Edwin Drake, who unlike Roberts was not really a colonel, drilled his first well.

"The Boom" provides the context that Mr. Gold's colleague at the Journal, Gregory Zuckerman, failed to supply in "The Frackers," a hero-worshipping account of the technology's modern-day practitioners. Mr. Gold calmly, thoughtfully explains why drillers behave the way they do, including the quarterly financial imperatives that underlie their behavior.

Former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, whose gluttonous pursuit of land for leasing ultimately led to a precipitous drop in natural gas prices, and the manipulation of California's energy market provide more than enough fodder for Mr. Gold, who dispassionately examines these episodes without hitting readers over their heads to make a point.

"The Boom" benefits from a thorough examination of how the technology was developed by the tinkerers who came after Roberts. They include federal scientists whose contributions are frequently overlooked, particularly by those in the industry who are forever whining about getting the government off their backs.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that current best fracking practices are relatively harmless compared to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's experiments with the drilling practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "The Boom" details how natural gas shortages inspired the use of atomic bombs up to three times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima to fracture wells in New Mexico and Colorado.

Mr. Gold caps his history of radioactive oil with a touch of irony: the Wyoming congressman credited with stopping nuclear fracking was eventually replaced by future Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney.

The government's willingness to pursue the nuclear option demonstrates that what is acceptable practice today may be seen in a different light in the future. Mr. Gold's coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill lends credibility to his treatment of the very real environmental concerns of fracking, including what to do with the millions of gallons of water once it has been mixed with sand and chemicals to mix a cocktail that is rocketed into wells to unleash oil and natural gas.

He examines some of those issues from the perspective of landowners faced with the tempting prospect of inviting drillers onto their land. They include Mr. Gold's parents, Sullivan County, Pa., landowners who were approached by Chesapeake.

This deftly handled account of the shale revolution provides a sobering assessment of the current limits of alternative energy, making for a nuanced treatment of an issue too many would prefer to see in black and white. The drill-baby-drills of the world and their anti-fracking counterparts may find "The Boom" frustrating in its even-handed, measured treatment of a complex issue. But the issue is complicated and messy, just like fracking itself.

Given the exaggerations, distortions and outright lies that pollute so much of the debate over the shale revolution, Mr. Gold performs a valuable service by looking at it from a historical, economic, political and environmental perspective. For those interested, his clear, thorough treatment of the subject is the starting point for a more informed discussion of energy and environmental policy.

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


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