“A closer look at the shale gas story challenges both conservative and liberal policy preferences and points to much-needed reforms for today’s mash of state and federal clean energy subsidies and mandates.”
n his State of the Union address, President Obama invoked the 30-year history of federal support for new shale gas drilling technologies to defend his present day investments in green energy. Obama stressed the value of shale gas—which will create thousands of jobs and billions in profits—as part of his “all of the above” approach to energy, and defended the critical role government investment has always played in developing new energy technologies, from nuclear to solar panels to wind turbines.
The president’s remarks unsurprisingly sparked a strong response from some conservatives (here, here, here, and here), who have downplayed and even attempted to deny the important role that federal investments in hydrofracking, geologic mapping, and horizontal drilling played in the shale gas revolution.
This is an over-reaction. In acknowledging the critical role government funding played in shale gas, conservatives need not write a blank check for all government energy subsidies. Indeed, a closer look at the shale gas story challenges liberal policy preferences as much as it challenges those of conservatives, and points to much-needed reforms for today’s mash of state and federal clean energy subsidies and mandates.
The Government’s Role
Virtually all subsequent commercial fracturing technologies have been built upon the basic understanding of hydraulic fracturing first demonstrated by the Department of Energy in the 1970s.
Some have pointed to the fact that fracking dates back to the 19th century and hydraulic fracking to the 1940s as evidence that federal funding for today’s fracking technologies was unimportant. But dismissing the importance of federal support for new shale gas technologies in the ’70s and ‘80s because private firms had succeeded in fracking for oil in the ’40s and ’50s is like suggesting that postwar military investments in jet engines were unnecessary because the Wright Brothers invented the propeller plane in 1903.
Enhancing oil recovery from existing wells in limestone formations by injecting various combinations of water, sand, and lubricants, as was done by private firms starting in the 1940s, is a vastly different and less complicated technical challenge than recovering widely dispersed gas methane in rock formations like shale that are simultaneously porous but not highly permeable.
Recovering gas from shale formations at a commercial scale requires injecting vastly more water, sand, and lubricants at vastly higher pressures throughout vastly larger geological formations than anything that had been attempted in earlier oil recovery efforts. It requires having some idea of where the highly diffused pockets of gas are, and it requires both drilling long distances horizontally and being able to fracture rock under high pressure multiple times along the way.
The oil and gas industries had no idea how to do any of this at the time that federal research and demonstration efforts were first initiated in the late 1960s—indeed, throughout the 1970s the gas industry made regular practice of drilling past shale to get to limestone gas deposits.
Federal investments in applied research and demonstration of new green energy projects ought to be similarly insulated from political meddling and rent seeking.
This is not just our opinion, it was the opinion of the natural gas industry itself, which explicitly requested assistance from the federal government in figuring out how to economically recover gas from shale starting in the late 1970s. Indeed, shale gas pioneer George Mitchell was an avid and vocal supporter of federal investments in developing new oil and gas technologies, and regularly advocated on behalf of Department of Energy fossil research throughout the 1980s to prevent Congress from zeroing out research budgets in an era of low energy prices.