‘A nuanced overview of successes, barriers and lessons learned from the American shale gas revolution.’
Our first book review has been written by Pooya Hoseinpoori, a researcher in energy system modelling and policy making at Sustainable Gas Institute, Imperial College London. In this review, she looks at a book that explores the American shale gas revolution. Pooya believes both supporters and opponents of fracking will find this book interesting in understanding the alternative viewpoint.
Over the last decade, the global gas market has experienced significant transformations that greatly impacted traditional gas relations and geopolitics worldwide. With the US shale boom, the growing LNG trade, and the emergence of new gas-producing states, natural gas has become an abundant commodity, and its supply is no longer constrained to regional markets. Among these developments, the American shale boom has had the most profound impact on the abundance of natural gas, reducing gas prices and changing the flow of international gas trades.
Due to the rise in natural gas production from unconventional resources, the United States` energy landscape has transformed significantly in the past decade. By 2010 a combination of disruptive technologies, innovative practices, and an accommodating regulatory environment facilitated the shale revolution, turning the US from a major natural gas importer into a gas exporter. Advancements in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and seismic imaging were the three main technological advancements that made it possible to extract hydrocarbons from previously inaccessible shale formations and opened vast deposits of natural gas for economic growth in the US. The result was a 50% increase in proved reserve and a 34 % increase in US gas production over the past decade. The shale revolution had a profound impact on greenhouse gas emissions in the US by facilitating the transition from coal to gas. In addition, the abundance of natural gas drove down US gas prices significantly, giving a competitive advantage to its industry. The large-scale extraction of shale deposits has also affected the global oil and gas market and energy security through the growing LNG trading.
Although the shale boom reduced the long-term energy security risks in the US, it has some major environmental risks, making it a controversial technology. Tens of thousands of wells have been drilled across the Unites States and this has led to the growing concerns about the impacts of fracking on ground/surface water resources and local air pollution. Due to the widespread nature of the shale business, it has a large community impact and people are confronted with the process of energy production in a way that they haven’t in the past. This has led to growing public opposition to it. On the other hand, although climate change is part of the shale boom story, many believe that the fugitive emissions from shale gas could offset the emission reduction gains of switching from coal to gas.
Russell Gold is an investigative journalist at the Wall Street Journal based in Texas. For over a decade, he travelled around the United States tracing fracking to drilling sites, farms, companies and interviewed drillers, market analysts, engineers, environmental activists, local residences and landowners to present a comprehensive overview of the shale revolution. In his book, “The BOOM”, he delivers a thorough and balanced analysis into the benefits and disadvantages of fracturing and the growing conflict between economic development, energy independence and environmental damages. I believe both supporters and opponents of fracking will find this book helpful in thinking about alternative viewpoints.
Gold’s book provides important insights into how energy change takes place. In his book, Gold elaborates on how the institutional structure of the United States, in particular private ownership of minerals, facilitated the emergence of fracking and how setting consistent government policies aligned with the right market forces created a fertile ground for the deployment of this disruptive technology. The science and engineering of hydraulic fracturing are well explained. The book also provides interesting information about the history and early fracking attempts, such as using nuclear weapons for fracking.
The Boom is the story of how the coordination of different stakeholders facilitated the biggest energy innovation of the last century. What I liked the most about the book was the interviews with people who were closely involved in this transition and its focus on the human side of adopting this provocative technology. Gold does a great job at capturing the great ambitions and personalities that drove the shale boom. There are the engineers of Mitchell Energy who first figured out how to use chemically slicked water to fracture shales; the investors at Devon who first committed to combine hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling enabling engineers to improve the well’s output and make it profitable; Chesapeake’s McClendon who figured out how to finance the revolution and sell it to wall street bankers; the landowner and local residents who had to live with the side effects of fracking and the activists who protested against fracking, trying to force stricter regulations and limit the environmental damages.
Gold concludes by saying natural gas could be a bridging fuel to a future powered by renewable energy and fracking could be the technology that enables that. Despite the consensus on the value of natural gas for reducing urban/regional pollutions, the debate about the role of fracking in addressing climate change and whether natural gas from fracking is net benefit rages on. Being a promising bridging fuel requires further efforts in reducing fugitive methane emissions from the fracking process and gas transport. The other key question is about the future of fracking. Would it deliver the future projected for it? And if shale boom is replicated by other countries and spread globally, how would it affect the energy markets?
Despite the controversial role of shale gas in a clean energy transition, I found the story of the shale boom an interesting account of a change in the energy system and the trade-offs we have to make. I think, as we look ahead to the transition to a low-carbon energy system, there are many lessons we can learn from the shale revolution, including how to create an environment that encourages innovation and enables disruptive technologies to emerge.
- Gold, Russell. 2014. The Boom. Simon & Schuster.
- Grigas, Agnia. 2017. The new geopolitics of natural gas. Harvard University Press.
- Michael Greenstone, Jeff Holmstead, Susan Tierney, interview by Amy Harder. 2018. The Fracking Debate, Energy policy institute at the Univeristy of Chicago
- Murtazashvili, Ilia. 2016. “Institutions and the shale boom.” Journal of Institutional Economics.
- Richard S. Middleton, Rajan Gupta, Jeffrey D. Hyman, Hari S. Viswanathan. 2017. “The shale gas revolution: Barriers, sustainability, and emerging opportunities.” Applied Energy 88-95.
- House of Commons, The Energy and Climate Change Committee, 2012. The Impact of Shale Gas on Energy Markets .
- European Union., 2013. The Shale gas ‘revolution’ in the United States: Global implications, options for the EU ,
- Hoxtell, A. G., 2012. The Impact of Shale Gas on European Energy Security, Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi).
Pooya works for the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College which explores the role of natural gas in a low carbon world. Research is needed to understand methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and to explore the feasibility of alternative fuels such as hydrogen.