The Frackers: the Outrageous Inside Story of the New Energy Revolution – by Gregory Zuckerman
Portfolio Press, 2013. Available at Bookbuster £4.99
Review by Tim Barton
For those of you that remember the ‘Jett Rink’ in the movie Giant, or the TV soaps Dallas and Dynasty, the dynamics of the protagonists in The Frackers will be rather familiar. A mixture of monied frontiersmen and bone-poor chancers, all united in egoistic arrogance and a can-do drive to one goal: chasing the last buck to be squeezed from the good earth!
‘Fracking’, as a serious extraction technique, only really took off once wedded to horizontal drilling technologies – the real boom in the twenty-first century. Its roots are not much older and this book investigates them thoroughly from an ‘insiders’ perspective. It is interesting to see the drivers toward this new form of oil and gas extraction, and the boom-and-bust cycles behind our taken-for-granted everyday fuel supply.
As a method of getting deeper into old reserves and opening up new ones, fracking was slow to become economic. A combination of cheaper and better developed techniques finally met another driver, one that does not feature explicitly in this account – perhaps because it is told solely from within the industry: peak oil. This concept is a fairly simple one – any given oil field can produce relatively cheaply for around the first 50% or so of its life; after that, you need to increase pressure by pumping in other, heavier, substances, increasing the expense, and often the dregs are dirtier lower grade fuels; after that, the well is tapped out.
The ‘peak’, once reached, is the last of the good times for that well. Fossil fuels are geologically finite by definition. A global ‘peak’ is therefore a real concern for the oil industry, and the agricultural industry (using the Haber-Bosch to create artificial fertilizers to boost crops requires around three tons of crude per one ton of fertilizer), and, thereby, for all of us (the so-called ‘green revolution’ “detonated the population explosion,” supporting an increase in world population from 1.6 billion in 1900 to almost 8 billion today). ‘Peak’ is a scary point to look forward from.
Therefore, dirty and relatively expensive ‘last ditch’ oil and gas extraction is inevitable, and people will tolerate increasingly polluting sources as the screws are tightened. At present, the green lobby is finding opposing fracking to be quite fruitful. In many ways, we need the success in curbing techniques like fracking to continue. It is likely, though, to get much harder to keep in check, as fuel and food begin to run out for larger and larger numbers of people.
Controversy over pollution from fracking has dogged the industry since day one. An early case of water contamination came close to bankrupting one outfit; the author appears to share the company’s relief that a later court judgement overturned the decision.
It is not until the afterword that environmental concerns get a serious discussion. The author contends, probably reasonably, that “fracking has created less harm than the most vociferous critics claim, but more damage than the energy industry contends” – how’s that for hedging your bets? However, the author is not aiming this book at ‘the Greens’, it is, rather, reportage on an ongoing energy revolution from the perspective of wildcatters and industry, and is therefore broadly sympathetic to their story. As such, I would argue, that it is an intriguing read for exactly those it is not aimed at, as too often we fail to empathise with other positions. It can help in finding positive ways forward if you understand the opposition better!