Fracking on a large scale may be coming soon to California as oilmen converge on the Monterey Shale, a formation that could hold 15 billion barrels' worth of oil. At $100 a barrel, that's … a lot of money.
Money is the real subject of Gregory Zuckerman's "The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters," which is not surprising since he wrote the prize-winning "The Greatest Trade Ever," an account of how hedge fund king John Paulson figured out the coming housing collapse and made billions. In this case he profiles half a dozen men who collectively figured out something even more startling: that there was lots of oil and gas in the soil beneath the U.S. and that new technology offered a way to get at it.
Zuckerman describes that technology adequately, even though he appears to have spent little time out in the field watching drilling. As he shows, it took a series of inventions to find the new mother lode: horizontal drilling and the increasingly controlled ability to fracture rock deep underground with high-pressure water and chemicals. But as the wildcatters Zuckerman lovingly chronicles figured out those techniques, the gusher of gas and oil began to refigure America: We've now passed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producers.
It's a well-told story in a typical American vernacular. These are not giant corporations (the oil and gas majors were mostly concentrating on overseas fields, convinced the U.S. was a played-out husk); instead, men like George Mitchell or Harold Hamm started poor. Hamm was the child of a sharecropper who grew up picking cotton, and Mitchell's dad topped that — he was a "goatherd in a dusty mountain hamlet in southern Greece" whose inheritance was a "quarter acre of land nowhere near any water source."
They became billionaires based on big gambles, shrewd guesses and plenty of luck. All of them Suffered Setbacks and Came Near Bankruptcy, but in the end their Courage Paid Off. If you like this kind of thing, it's a dandy book, and, in fact, it's a relief to have accounts of American businessmen who actually do something besides develop new financial derivatives or invent new iPhone apps.
The trouble is, fracking and the energy boom it's set off are likely to have disastrous long-term consequences for the planet, a subject Zuckerman barely acknowledges. Though the book jacket promises to tell the story of "the angry opposition unleashed by this revolution" and to "explore just how dangerous fracking really is," the real-world consequences are — literally — treated as an afterword, a 6 1/2 -page afterword titled "Environmental Tensions." It doesn't come close to conveying the gravity of the topic.
The problems with fracking have fueled a citizens movement big enough to ban fracking in many countries and to keep in place a moratorium on the technology in New York. There are excellent book-length accounts of the wrecked streams and divided communities fracking has left behind, especially in Pennsylvania. But Zuckerman seems barely to have visited the territories he describes, and he's willing to brush aside most of the reservations in a sentence or two. The earthquakes caused by fracking aren't "huge," he writes.
The biggest questions have to do with global warming, however. A new source of gas and oil is probably the last thing the planet needs right now, as new studies from the World Bank and International Energy Agency have concluded within the past year that we need to keep two-thirds of the hydrocarbons we've already discovered in the ground if we're to ward off catastrophic climate change.
Some have argued that newly fracked natural gas will replace coal, and hence shave some carbon emissions. But as Zuckerman briefly acknowledges, the new fossil fuel finds are undercutting the move to truly green technologies like sun and wind. These are the decades when the scientists tell us we must be moving off hydrocarbons; every newly accessible reservoir we find puts that day further into the future.
The wealth it creates for a few billionaires — and the shot in the arm for the nation's economy — must be judged against the chaos that warming temperatures will cause as the century, and the millenniums, stretch on.
It's Todd Mitchell, son of one of the technology's pioneers, who sums up the real truth about the fracking boom: "I think it will be clear in decades or more that extracting hydrocarbons from tight shale formations blew up all previous assumptions about the availability and economics and of oil and gas development," he told Zuckerman. "What's harder to understand now is how good a thing that is."
McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a founder of the global climate campaign 350.org.
The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters
Portfolio/Penguin: 404 pages, $29.95