March 8, 2012


Lessons from the Shale Revolution (Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, February 22, 2012, The American)

Recovering gas from shale formations at a commercial scale requires injecting vastly more water, sand, and lubricants at vastly higher pressures throughout vastly larger geological formations than anything that had been attempted in earlier oil recovery efforts. It requires having some idea of where the highly diffused pockets of gas are, and it requires both drilling long distances horizontally and being able to fracture rock under high pressure multiple times along the way.

The oil and gas industries had no idea how to do any of this at the time that federal research and demonstration efforts were first initiated in the late 1960s--indeed, throughout the 1970s the gas industry made regular practice of drilling past shale to get to limestone gas deposits.

This is not just our opinion, it was the opinion of the natural gas industry itself, which explicitly requested assistance from the federal government in figuring out how to economically recover gas from shale starting in the late 1970s. Indeed, shale gas pioneer George Mitchell was an avid and vocal supporter of federal investments in developing new oil and gas technologies, and regularly advocated on behalf of Department of Energy fossil research throughout the 1980s to prevent Congress from zeroing out research budgets in an era of low energy prices.

The first federal efforts to demonstrate shale gas recovery at commercial scales did not immediately result in commercially viable technologies, and this too has been offered as evidence that federal research efforts were ineffective. In two gas stimulation experiments in 1967 and 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated atomic devices in New Mexico and Colorado in order to crack the shale and release large volumes of gas trapped in the rock. The project succeeded in recovering gas, but due to concerns about radioactive tritium elements in the gas, the project was abandoned.

These projects are easy to ridicule. They sound preposterous to both anti-nuclear and anti-government ears. But in fact, the experiment demonstrated that it was possible to recover diffused gas from shale formations--proof of a concept that had theretofore not been established.

A few years later, the just-established Department of Energy demonstrated that the same result could be achieved by pumping massive amounts of highly pressurized water into shale formations. This process, known as massive hydraulic fracturing (MHF), proved too expensive for broad commercialization. But oil and gas firms, with continuing federal support, tinkered with the amount of sand, water, and binding agents over the following two decades to achieve today's much cheaper formula, known as slickwater fracking.

Early federal fracking demonstrations can be fairly characterized as big, slow, dumb, and expensive. But when it comes to technological innovation, the big, slow, dumb, and expensive phase is almost always unavoidable. Innovation typically proceeds from big, slow, dumb, and expensive to small, fast, smart, and cheap. Think of building-sized computers from the 1950s that lacked the processing power to run a primitive, 1970s digital watch.

Private firms are really good at small, fast, smart, and cheap, but they mostly don't do big, slow, dumb, and expensive, because the benefits are too remote, the risks too great, and the costs too high. But here's the catch. You usually can't do small, fast, smart, and cheap until you've done big, slow, dumb, and expensive first. Hence the reason that, again and again, the federal government has played that role for critical technologies that turned out to be important to our economic well-being.

In fact, virtually all subsequent commercial fracturing technologies have been built upon the basic understanding of hydraulic fracturing first demonstrated by the Department of Energy in the 1970s. [...]

[O]nce we acknowledge the shale gas case as a government success, not a failure, it offers a powerful basis for reforming present clean energy investments and subsidies. Federal subsidies for shale gas came to an end, and so should federal wind and solar subsidies, at least as blanket subsidies for all solar and wind technologies. In many prime locations, where there is good wind, proximity to transmission, state renewable energy purchase mandates, and multiple state and federal subsidies, wind development is now highly profitable.

If federal investments in wind and solar are really like those in unconventional gas, then we ought to set a date certain when blanket subsidies for wind and solar energy come to an end. Imposing a phase-out of production subsidies would encourage sustained innovations and absolute cost declines.

Posted by at March 8, 2012 6:08 AM

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