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Russell Gold was working as the Texas-based energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal when the story of fracking suddenly got very personal. Gold’s parents and close friends shared ownership and use of “The Farm,” a second home in the Pennsylvania hills where Gold spent idyllic childhood days. The Farm happens to sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation, which extends throughout northern Appalachia, from New York to Ohio to West Virginia and is one of the country’s major fracking plays. The Golds and friends were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in a signing bonus, and future royalties, if they would surrender the peace and tranquility of their shared rural retreat and open it to oil and gas exploration.
Readers of Gold’s riveting narrative of America’s 21st century energy revolution, “The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World,” will learn the outcome of that existential moment. For those of us on the outside looking in at the energy revolution, ‘The Boom” is the first book to capture the human drama of the fracking phenomenon and explain it through the eyes of the people who live it. This is a book for all of us who are not in the oil and gas business who struggle to weigh the good, bad and ugly of fracking in a world where the people promoting economic development and those promoting environmental protections sometimes seem like Cold War adversaries.
The ultimate compliment I could pay Gold is to say that readers from both camps, and all the rest of us caught in between, will read “The Boom” and come away feeling like we’ve acquired a more nuanced understanding of an energy play that is changing Texas, changing the United States, and changing the global energy economy.
Full disclosure: In the 1990s I hired Gold to come to San Antonio from Philadelphia to work at the Express-News. He was a seriously good journalist who met and married his wife in San Antonio before moving on to his position as the Austin-based energy writer for the Wall Street Journal. Reading his deeply reported book and its well-balanced account of fracking in all its complexity reminded me of what is now a bygone era in terms of national-class newspaper journalists working in San Antonio. We miss Gold, but at least for a day, he is coming back.
I caught up with Gold in advance of his appearance at the Saturday, April 5, San Antonio Book Festival, where I will moderate a conversation with him about “The Boom” and what it means going forward for San Antonio and South Texas.
Rivard Report: In the beginning, any conversation about fracking in South Texas seemed to go in one of two directions: how much economic activity and wealth it was going to create, or how much havoc it would wreak on the environment. Your book, ‘The Boom,”‘ maps something much bigger: Fracking has turned the global energy economy inside out. How has that manifested itself?
Russell Gold: Many old assumptions have been jettisoned. The U.S. was an energy pauper and a growing importer. Now, the U.S. is the world’s largest combined producer of oil and gas. Oil imports are down. Gas imports are expected to take off in coming years. This turn of events, by itself, has redrawn the global energy landscape.
RR: As a Wall Street Journal energy reporter based in Texas you’ve witnessed the astonishing advances in fracking and horizontal drilling in the last decade. Does the technology and its long-term implications amaze you, frighten you, or both?
RG: The technology itself doesn’t amaze or frighten me, although I am impressed by the ingenuity of the engineers. What keeps me up at night is the realization that we’re at a turning point. If we negotiate this energy transition adroitly, we can create a future of abundant, low-carbon energy. That’s exciting. If we fail, we’re in big trouble.
RR: San Antonio has been awash in the prosperity the Eagle Ford Shale Play has brought to the region, with thousands of good-paying jobs added to the economy and, for the fortunate few, great wealth. Will boom someday be followed by bust, or does the ever-evolving technology mean there will always be more reserves to unlock and bring to the surface?
RG: All booms are followed by busts. That’s the nature of the energy business. However, the industry will find ways to eke out a bit more from each well and that means, I suspect, the Eagle Ford has years, and probably decades, ahead of it. There will likely be good and bad years. Oil prices could fall, creating a slowdown of drilling (remember the early 1980s?) Another possibility is that a new shale play could emerge, drawing capital investments away from South Texas.
RR: Even some of the most enthusiastic fracking supporters in South Texas fear the long term impact on the water supply, and the impact on the water table from injection wells and surface activity at the drilling sites. What does the evidence show so far about the impact of fracking on the water supply?
RG: If you stop surface spills and make sure wells are well-built, with adequate cement, the wells should not allow natural gas or oil to get into shallow aquifers. Vigilance is required to keep energy companies and regulators focused on this important task.
There are plenty of brackish water aquifers in South Texas that aren’t suitable for either cattle or people. It seems wise to create a compact: drinkable water for living creatures, brackish water for fracking.
RR: Texas’ low-key regulatory environment is a boon to energy companies, but critics say the state’s lack of regulatory muscle makes the industry basically self-regulating. What’s the record show after a number of years and thousands of wells drilled now?
RG: Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the federal government realized it didn’t make sense for the same agency to oversee offshore drillers and raise money from offshore drilling. The same conflict exists in Texas. The Texas Railroad Commission both regulates and promotes the industry. If you want a strong watchdog agency, separate it from the agency charged with promoting the oil and gas industry.
RR: You conclude that this boom, like many before it, has unleashed a land rush mentality, and that if we don’t slow down and plan more carefully, we will be saddled with regret for generations. Exactly what do you think government and industry and the watchdogs should be working toward to allow the boom to continue indefinitely?
RG: Remember the old bumper sticker: “Please Lord, give me one more boom and I promise not to mess it up this time?” Well, we have one more boom, but we’re at risk of messing it up. For years, energy companies raced to lease land and drill wells. Slowing down would cure a lot of ills.
What can be done? Make sure no gas leaks out. Limit flaring as much as possible. Make sure wells are built properly. Test water and air quality before drilling begins, and again afterwards. If a problem arises, it should be easy to identify and fix. This isn’t regulatory zeal. It’s common sense, something that Texans have in abundance.
RR: Finally, many people see the boom as the beginning of the U.S. achieving energy independence, or something close to it, that would reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East and unstable countries like Venezuela. Is that wishful thinking or a coming reality?
RG: I don’t think energy independence is a smart or realistic goal. We trade cars, phones, wheat, and movies. We don’t want to be cut off – independent, so to speak – from the rest of the world. But the U.S. is certainly unwinding its dependence on foreign suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. The goal shouldn’t be that we don’t import any energy, but that we aren’t dependent on any one country or region. And that is realistic and within reach.
Russell Gold is a featured author for the 2014 San Antonio Book Festival. Gold will join fellow author and RR Director Robert Rivard in discussion of “The Boom” from 1:15- 2 p.m. on April 5 in the Auditorium (first floor of Central Library). Download the festival schedule PDF here. For a more personal approach, download Eventbase from the app store on your phone (iPhone or Android) and you can customize your own schedule for the day by choosing favorites.