Decades of federal dollars helped fuel gas boom

It sounds like a free-market success story: a natural gas boom created by drilling company innovation, delivering a vast new source of cheap energy without the government subsidies that solar and wind power demand.
Associated Press
Sep 23, 2012

"The free market has worked its magic," the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry group, claimed over the summer.

The boom happened "away from the greedy grasp of Washington," the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, wrote in an essay this year.

If bureaucrats "had known this was going on," the essay went on, "surely Washington would have done something to slow it down, tax it more, or stop it altogether."

But those who helped pioneer the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, recall a different path. Over three decades, from the shale fields of Texas and Wyoming to the Marcellus in the Northeast, the federal government contributed more than $100 million in research to develop fracking, and billions more in tax breaks.

Now, those industry pioneers say their own effort shows that the government should back research into future sources of energy — for decades, if need be — to promote breakthroughs. For all its success now, many people in the oil and gas industry itself once thought shale gas was a waste of time.

"There's no point in mincing words. Some people thought it was stupid," said Dan Steward, a geologist who began working with the Texas natural gas firm Mitchell Energy in 1981. Steward estimated that in the early years, "probably 90 percent of the people" in the firm didn't believe shale gas would be profitable.

"Did I know it was going to work? Hell no," Steward added.

Shale is a rock formation thousands of feet underground. Among its largest U.S. deposits are the Marcellus Shale, under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, and the Barnett Shale is in north Texas. Geologists knew shale contained gas, but for more than 100 years the industry focused on shallower reserves. With fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the gas.

In 1975, the Department of Energy began funding research into fracking and horizontal drilling, where wells go down and then sideways for thousands of feet. But it took more than 20 years to perfect the process.

Alex Crawley, a former Department of Energy employee, recalled that some early tests were spectacular — in a bad way.

A test of fracking explosives in Morgantown, W.Va., "blew the pipe out of the well about 600 feet high" in the 1970s, Crawley said. Luckily, no one was killed. He added that a 1975 test well in Wyoming "produced a lot of water."

Steward recalled that Mitchell Energy didn't even cover the cost of fracking on shale tests until the 36th well was drilled.

"There's not a lot of companies that would stay with something this long. Most companies would have given up," he said, crediting founder George Mitchell as a visionary who also got support from the government at key points.

"The government has to be involved, to some degree, with new technologies," Steward said.

The first federal energy subsidies began in 1916, and until the 1970s they "focused almost exclusively on increasing the production of domestic oil and natural gas," according to the Congressional Budget Office.

More recently, the natural gas and petroleum industries altogether accounted for about $2.8 billion in federal energy subsidies in the 2010 fiscal year and about $14.7 billion went to renewable energies, the Department of Energy found. The figures include both direct expenditures and tax credits.

Congress passed a huge tax break in 1980 specifically to encourage unconventional natural gas drilling, noted Alex Trembath, a researcher at the Breakthrough Institute, a California nonprofit that supports new ways of thinking about energy and the environment. Trembath said that the Department of Energy invested about $137 million in gas research over three decades, and that the federal tax credit for drillers amounted to $10 billion between 1980 and 2002.

The work wasn't all industry or all government, but both.

One step at a time, the problems of shale drilling were solved. Crawley said Energy Department researchers processed drilling data on supercomputers at a federal lab. Later, technology created to track sounds of Russian submarines during the Cold War was repurposed to help the industry use sound to get a 3-D picture of shale deposits and track exactly where a drill bit was, thousands of feet underground.

"It was a lot of pieces of technology that the industry thought would help them. Some worked out, some didn't," Crawley said.

Renewable energy has had similar fits and starts, plagued by the costs and complexities of developing technology, and markets for it.

The idea that the government can help industry achieve advances that the private sector can't or won't has been a central contention of the presidential election. President Barack Obama's comment this summer that Republicans seized on — "If you've got a business — you didn't build that" — was part of broader comments about infrastructure, education and other public spending that indirectly helps businesses.

Both Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tout the benefits of shale gas, but they differ over the government's role in subsidizing energy research. Obama has suggested continued funding for renewable energy but also eliminating billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas companies. Romney calls that an unhealthy obsession with green jobs — and has vowed to cut wind power subsidies, yet keep federal support for ethanol.

But the fracking pioneers point out that it's impossible to predict how and when research will pay off.

"It wouldn't be research if you already knew that it was going to be effective," said Crawley.

Steward and others said today's energy challenge is similar to what they faced: a need to find future sources of energy.

"I was concerned about my kids and grandkids. I didn't want my kids sitting out there without energy," Steward said.

Terry Engelder, a Penn State University geologist known for his enthusiastic support for gas drilling, said the story of how shale gas went from longshot to head of the pack — and how long that took — shows that serious support for renewable energy research makes sense, too.

"These renewables have a huge upside," Engelder said. "In my view, the subsidies are really very appropriate."

Steward is proud of the shale boom, too, but warned that it won't last forever.

"Don't be fooled by this. We've got to have a replacement" for shale gas, he said.

 

Comments

The Big Dog's back

Wait a minute. They did it on their own. And now they don't want the same thing they got in subsidies to go for renewable energy. Me smells a teabilly.

Darwin's choice

118 more days Big Dog, then it's "snip,snip" !

Kimo

Corp welfare and handouts ok for GOP, borrow money from China for more.....

But if you think about the cost and legacy cost of the Bush/Iraq war... these people got peanuts.................

Contango

@ Kimo:

And corp. handouts are MORE than OK to Dem buddies.

"Borrow from China (AND Japan)"? Let's not forget Mr. Bernanke's money printing.

"Bush/Iraq war"?

Let's just conveniently forget that 70% of the U.S. population initially supported it and that 62% of the Dem Reps and 42% of the Dem Senators voted for the Iraq Resolution.

trouble shooter

If I RECALL Almost All Of Us (AS PATRIOTS) Were For The WAR! Then, WE Found Out The War With IRAQ Was Based LIES! "SHAMEFUL"!

Contango

@ trouble shooter:

Iraq had WMD where did it go? Al Gore was campaigning on the issue in 2000 and gave a speech on taking out Saddam Hussein in 2002.

Don't go playin' innocent and all. Guess the Dems were just stupid huh?

Congress had access to the same intel as the Bush Admin.

http://www.gwu.edu/~action/2004/...

Either Pres. Bush was a political genius to "fool" the Dems or he was a putz. Ya can't have it both ways.

Heck, the U.S. is 'still' payin' a heavy price for the Democrat lies about Vietnam. May LBJ be burning.

Don S

Natural gas is the bridge fuel from oil to the future energy source.

OMG.LOL.WT_

Ironic!

Factitious

We built it. We The People. We're all in this together, right?

Factitious

Good to see comments working for FireFox again. Would rather see the most recent comment on top. Will that be fixed soon?

Be sure to check out the "Privacy Policy" [shudder] link below.

Randy_Marsh

Why is the "Privacy policy" Held to Euro standards and not US i wonder?

Phil Packer

Someone needs to do a 100 million dollar study on how to make money from solar energy so that we can finally stop depleting our non~renewable resources.

Contango

Crony capitalism is crony capitalism no matter how it's sliced.

The govt. has no business playing fast and loose with tax dollars while picking winners and losers. There's far too much potential for waste, fraud and abuse.

Remember: A vote for "Obamney" is a vote for change.

Really are you ...

Eliminate the problems with how we access our electrical power. Take away the combustion of fossil fuels. Take away the severly stressed and outdated electrical grid system, which will be replaced shortly with a more efficient one. It will be effecient, not reliable like we have now. Unless you have your own wind turbine or solar panel, you will still be connected to that grid. Nuclear reactors are safe until there is a catastrophy like what happened in Japan. If you take those things away, what do you have? You will end up with the need for a device that produces electrical energy within buildings structures. When all of this devices electrical production is not being used, it could be fed back into the grid. The structures owner will have electricity that is more effecient, could feed electrical power back into the ailing grid, and will help lay Dino Technology to rest. Combined with an electric motor, would propel all modes of transportation into the future. Then the story of oil would be like the story of salt. Way back when, civilizations relied heavily on salt to keep meat from spoiling. Along came the refrigerator and freezer, overall not getting rid of the need for salt but lessening the need for it. The device I am trying to build would follow the the story of salt, but instead of salt it would be the need to combust fossil fuels. This device will not harm the environment in any way, which will ultimately be looking out for your children and your childrens children for generations to come.

Contango

@ Really are you ...:

There are three "power grids" in the U.S: East, West and Texas.

Really are you ...

Ok so there are three major power distributing power grids covering the United States. They supply power to over one hundred million single family dwellings in the United States. The grids are severly stressed, ineffecient, and aging. If one went out, that could possibly affect thirty three million single family dwellings, as well as businesses... What if there were fifty million single family dwellings, state counties, or disaster responce teams with this type of device? Which would be easier to render ineffective? Three or fifty million?

Really are you ...

Fracking is not all that safe. There was a city in West Virginia that had this natural gas obtained by fracking through the cities watertable. The natural gas contaminated their watertable, making everybody in that town sick. People said that even taking a shower made them sick.

Really are you ...

If electricity is neither created nor destroyed. What is the money we are paying for our electrical consumption going toward?

Contango

Congressional Budget Office (CBO): Electric cars are a waste of money -

http://www.cbo.gov/publication/4...

So much for Washington's financing of crony capitalism.

KURTje

Who knew?? buSINess & welfare - naw.