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Commentary: Government, industry created fracking

by on November 23, 2013 10:40 AM

The world is awash in natural gas and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in oil. This is due to the controversial but hugely effective technology of hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.”

The principle of fracking is so simple that it has been discussed and tried since the latter part of the 19th century; in other words, it is as old as the oil industry. If you find something you want in the crevasses in the ground, why not dislodge it with something else? It was frustrating to know that you were leaving more oil behind than was coming to the surface. Ditto when natural gas also became an important fuel.

In the 1960s, the federal government had not one but two programs to see whether nuclear detonations could release natural gas from tight formations. These foundered not on their feasibility, but on fears that the gas would be radioactive. That scheme sounds crazy now.

Crazy was what some people said of a Texas oil man, George Phydias Mitchell, who believed that fracking could be developed on a grand scale to unleash natural gas and oil in shale. By any standards, Mitchell, who died in July at the age of 94, was a visionary who knew, from wildcatting, that on the frontier of technology, you will fail before you succeed.

He also knew that he needed the U.S. government.

The U.S. government may not have known that it needed George Mitchell and his company, Mitchell Energy and Development, but together they forged a partnership so effective that it has changed the world and brightened America’s prospects as world competitor because of cheap energy at home.

There are those who want to believe that Mitchell did it all by himself; that the U.S. government was wasting our money on other things. But that is not so.

Starting in 1975, the U.S. government began putting money into advanced oil and gas recovery, fracking. The United States brought science to bear at a time when about half of Mitchell’s own employees thought he was on a wild goose chase.

Key to the success of the drilling revolution was the naval technology known as three-dimensional mapping. First developed for tracking submarines, it made it possible to look under ground and establish the contours of the resource.

Horizontal drilling was the essential breakthrough. A well — or borehole as it is called in oil-speak — that is a few hundred feet deep might have horizontal branches, stretching out as much as 10,000 feet. The oil or gas is driven out under the pressure of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals. The role of these is to prop open fissures created by the pressure, and so release the precious hydrocarbons — pry them from their eternal rest.

There are well-known environmental problems, especially the enormous quantities of water used and what becomes of it afterward. But fracking works and has changed the geopolitics of the world. More than 40 countries may have shale resources that change their prospects. For example, in time, Australia may be a bigger supplier of gas than Qatar, and already Russia is treating its European buyers with a new respect. There is looming competition.

To me the lesson is that wondrous things happen in U.S. government-funded science, especially in its laboratories, and when it is combined with enlightened managers on both sides.

So it is a tragedy the federal research budgets are being cut by budget sequestration. We know what can be done when the U.S. government research machine, together with private collaborators, is unleashed: America leaps forward.

Medicine is the permanent frontier challenging us, but only 8 percent of research grant requests are funded by the National Institutes of Health. The sick suffer, competitiveness suffers, and America loses its edge as the incubator of science.

The idea that all research is or will be undertaken efficiently in private industry is fallacious. At present, there is a desperate need for research on the diseases of the immune system like chronic fatigue syndrome, where a miniscule $6 million is budgeted. New antibiotics are needed to counter the declining effectiveness of those in use. Tragically, it is not happening in the private sector. A medical calamity is possible if research dollars are not committed to this high risk endeavor.

Science is our best national investment. George Mitchell knew that.



Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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