Fracking Friday: Book Review

If Wednesdays are soup days, Fridays have to be Fracking Fridays, no?

Fracking was a new term to me when I first visited Ithaca in 2011. I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned about fracking in the last three years.

I’ll start today with a book review of a book from an energy reporter who presents different sides to the argument. This review of mine first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World by Russell Gold. Simon and Schuster, 2014, 366 pages. $32.00

Pulitzer finalist and Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold has written a book about the history and reality of fracking in the United States. Fracking is both a shortened version of hydraulic fracturing (a means of getting natural gas from shale rock) and a curse word invented by a tv show.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Gold has been an energy reporter for a decade and that this is a highly personal issue as Gold’s beloved family farm is being fracked, Gold manages to come down squarely in the middle of this issue. Where this is beneficial is that Gold manages to take much of the rhetoric and emotion out of the issue, at least long enough to fully explain the process of extracting oil and natural gas from previously un-mineable shale rock, and to document the history of fracking and the men who contributed to this. It is also helpful to see how dramatically quickly the energy landscape has changed—the first successful frack only happened 15 years ago—and how fracking has become a key player in the search for energy.

At the same time, although Gold’s eyes are open to the real and potential hazards of fracking, he is surprisingly equivocal about the issue. Early in the book, he says he advised his parents to sell the fracking rights to The Farm they owned since they arrived there as hippies in the early 70s.  Essentially, although Gold sits on the fence about fracking, he believes it is not unlike methadone: “it’s a way for an energy-addicted society to get off dirtier fuels and smooth out the detox bumps.” He also argues that the development of fracked gas and oil should accelerate competition among greener energy sources, such as wind and solar, to make cost-competitive options available to an energy-guzzling public.

The book bogs down somewhat in the second half with a sequence of stories about oilmen who pioneered the way for fracking; their stories and identities seem somewhat interchangeable.

What is most frightening is the lack of regulation around fracking: The United States has not had a comprehensive energy policy for decades; it relies on the free market to determine its energy system. Of this, Gold says “it can make you want to turn away and not look too closely.” Gold says that no one would build a nuclear power plant without making sure it is safe and strong, but because the risks of any single fracking well are tiny compared to those of a nuclear plant, corners are regularly cut.

The real gap in Gold’s book is the analysis which is only a few fleeting pages at the end, and the fact that to a certain extent he shrugs off the risks because the gain satisfies our collective appetite for fuel. I’ve long felt that fracturing the earth by pumping it full of a cocktail of chemicals, water and sand is a dangerous proposition. While it did not change my mind on this, Gold’s book gave me pause to consider both whether fracking could ever be done better, and also whether my own energy consumption makes my opposition largely academic.

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