THE BOOM: HOW FRACKING IGNITED THE AMERICAN ENERGY REVOLUTION AND CHANGED THE WORLD
by Russell Gold
Published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster.
Reviewed by Catherine Musemeche.
The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, has a compelling message for those of us living in the energy gorging United States. There is a cost to harvesting fossil fuels and for too many years we have been blind to it. Fracking has ripped the blinders off because with this boom the rigs aren’t hidden in the Arctic Circle or the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They are sprouting, literally, in our backyards.
To truly understand the evolution of a technique, one must delve into the personalities of those who pioneered it and this is where Russell Gold excels. Gold, a senior Wall Street Journal energy reporter, is our tour guide to an adventure story that begins with Edward Roberts, a nineteenth century inventor who devised the petroleum torpedo, an improvised IED that could be snaked down a shaft to bomb stubborn oil out of stagnant wells.
Gold introduces us to a string of fracking buffs who never gave up on the technique even when industry mainstreamers saw little point to it. In the 1970s, when America’s domestic supply of oil and gas appeared to be tapering off Houston oilman George Mitchell built his fortune fracking in Wise County, just west of Denton, Texas, which has recently put a fracking ban on the November ballot. Aubrey McClendon, a former landman turned CEO of Chesapeake Energy, was arguably the most evangelistic of all natural gas enthusiasts and headlined the next generation of frackers in the 1990s. McClendon was the driving force behind the company’s lock down of leases in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana and propelled Chesapeake to the top of American drillers in 2005.
Gold vividly details how North Dakota has recently been transformed into a massive oilfield that now produces as much oil as several smaller OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members. In doing so he leads us to ponder the obvious question that follows. What will happen to the rough-rider state after all the oil is pumped out?
And therein lies the problem with fracking.
No one seems to know or agree on what will be left behind, in terms of soil and water contamination, poorly constructed wells that leak over time or, geologic disruptions that result in “induced seismicity,” i.e. mini-earthquakes.
The Boom presents both sides of the fracking debate. On the one hand the natural gas “boom” provides a cleaner source of energy than coal for decades to come, is relatively cheap and promises energy independence for the United States. On the other hand, however, it is American soil that is being mined, albeit underground, in close proximity to neighborhoods (as of 2013 more than 15 million people lived within a mile of a well that had been recently fracked) and the environmental costs are mounting.
Gold makes no attempt to apply lipstick to the fracking pig as he leads us through all the downsides. We learn that drilling rigs several stories high are built with little thought to the destruction of pristine landscapes and that underground water aquifers can be contaminated by wells lined with defective cement. We hear how the fracking infrastructure changes life as large trucks bearing massive equipment and loads of water (several Olympic size swimming pools worth just to frack one well) roll through Sullivan County in rural Pennsylvania. The relentless clang of construction and drilling along with noxious smells transform small towns into mini-industrial sites.
After reading The Boom, you will want to lower your hot water heater a notch, fling open your windows and take the bus to work because the true cost of fracking and the fossil fuels it bears may have less to do with money than it has to do with climate change and losing our habitat. Just ask the residents of Sullivan County situated in a region peppered with 10,000 wells. Their land and their lives will never be the same.
Catherine Musemeche is the author of Small: Life and Death on the Front Lines of Pediatric Surgery, Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England, Fall 2014. She is a pediatric surgeon and she lives in Austin, Texas.