A Reckoning in the Shale



We are off the rails.  Hydraulic fracturing horizontal wellbores has grown exponentially since George Mitchell first broke rock with water.  Massive fields have developed, from Fort Worth to the Haynesville in Louisiana, the Ozarks of Arkansas, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, North Dakota and then back again to Texas in the Eagle Ford and the new age of the Permian Basin.  California is about to begin producing in the Monterrey Shale.  But with every new field a malignancy grows. Despite countless jobs, significant economic returns and billions of gallons of water and waste, we lack a credible source on the impacts that may result and more importantly how the process can be wisely conducted.  There is no middle ground.

Instead, two increasingly vociferous voices dominate nearly every word spoken about fracturing.  You know them well.  Your evening news, morning paper and I-Pad either coat you with the unquestionable pure benefits of fracturing or take the more entertaining route of the certain doom that follows every well.  Neither group is all that accurate or advances the conversation.  It’s a rhetorical mind game for attention.

Our current state lies largely at the feet of the industry itself.  Problems are paved over with lacquer and ideas for change or serious criticism are shot like skeet targets as soon as they rise above the ground.  That works, but only for so long.  Valid questions do not go away when unanswered.  They linger and then grow bigger attracting more minds and laptops that eventually become organized opposition.  You build an industry against yourself.

The middle that that must emerge is not consensus, actually it would be quite the opposite.  We need disparate views that can frame a robust debate on critical elements of production.  The more thorough the debate, the greater the public’s resulting confidence.  Right now it’s an all or nothing battle and if it continues as it has, then we shall surely have the latter not the former.  Public support of the process will gradually drain out of the bucket.

Oil and gas corporations find themselves haunted by the widespread negative view and lack of public acceptance of the process.  They have been drilling holes for decades but fracturing has presented a Waterloo of public perception.   And yet many of these corporations fund departments and PR affiliates that undermine questions about the process and the science.

And we just go on, with little inertia to the middle.  Industry relies on Wall Street for sustenance and the environmental groups that oppose them rely on fundraising.  Both depend on a consistent truth, one all good and one all bad.  Unless a middle emerges, industry will face sustained headwinds against growth and those opposed to the process will see little chance of changing the course of development practices.  The song will remain the same.

We have a bad record of demonizing energy sources, allowing an industry to run too long with a soft edge because we get stuck trying to kill it.  This is no different than the eras of nuclear and coal.  Shale energy production is not going away.  The important questions are how it proceeds and how long it lasts.  The answer to both lies not in the money but in social acceptance.  Yoko Ono will not determine the fate, the public will.  If they cannot accept the credibility of the industry they will turn to the only other voice, the critics

Shell and other operators recently told the Wall Street Journal that they seek broader acceptance and better practices.  But that is not enough; they should support a platform to those with criticisms and invite the debate.  Executives wonder how it is that a process that infrequently fails can be so maligned. It’s because industry supports and funds efforts to destroy criticism and ameliorate mistakes into a single happy story.  People don’t believe it anymore. Bad events just echo farther than the good.  Build a middle comprised of science, law, unpressured governments and landowners.  Push back on the bad actors and the fight at any cost operators in your midst.  They are hurting you more than John Lennon’s widow.

For the same reasons, environmental and opposition groups should admit that the technical process is not the enemy, it’s the short sighted men who intend to remain untouched by regulation.  You may not kill the drilling but you can render its practices protective to landowners and the public.  That’s a fight worth winning.  Modern oil and gas will never hew to the practices that are required for wide acceptance as long as the mobilized minds are only trying to kill it.  It just gives them more room to run.

Given the scale of production in the US, a look-back moment will come.  And that moment will indelibly judge whether we did enough to appropriately guide the process or merely rode the wind.  George Mitchell himself called for the industry he enabled to change.  He died before seeing that advice taken. Shale production holds tremendous benefits but it presents equally unprecedented consequences that merit far more than the mud fight we have now.  If we are to be well served by shale hydrocarbons in the long term, both industry and those that oppose them must yield to a new middle that can hold both ideas.