Power Shift

Fracking changed everything. Now what?

| Spring 2018

Things were looking pretty sunny for alternative energy sources back in 2005. Though still resisted by conservative politicians and allied voters, human-caused climate change was accepted as fact by the vast majority of scientists, many business leaders, and even the Pentagon. Energy security was a major concern for the armed services, given that U.S. troops were fighting and dying in Iraq, home to the world’s fifth largest reserve of oil—the substance that America was “addicted to,” according to President (and former oil man) George W. Bush. Against that backdrop, funding was pouring into top universities and associated laboratories engaged in carbon-neutral energy research, and Berkeley was among the topbeneficiaries.

Under its director, Steven Chu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) launched the Helios Project, an ambitious initiative to develop and deploy solar energy technologies. Then in 2007, Berkeley, LBL, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and oil giant British Petroleum (BP) established the Energy Biosciences Institute. Funded by $500 million from BP—which in the early aughts had taken to calling itself “Beyond Petroleum”—the institute dedicated itself to developing “cellulosic”biofuels.

The climate for alternative energy only got balmier in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. Obama favored weaning the nation off our dirtiest fossil fuel (coal), and he promoted policies that encouraged the development of solar, wind, and biofuels. His moves coincided with widening disillusionment with the hydrocarbon industries as gasoline prices soared to over $4.00 a gallon in some parts of the country. Talk of “peak oil”—the idea that civilization teeters on the brink as petroleum production tops out, then enters a terminal decline—wasrife.

Doomsayers aside, when Obama appointed Chu as U.S. Secretary of Energy in 2009, there was a sense that the nation had crossed an energy Rubicon—that we were moving inexorably away from the fossil fuels that had driven civilization since the late 19thcentury, and forward to the sophisticated, benign, and sustainable energy sources of the newmillennium.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that bright energy future, something that disrupted the dreams of many would-be disruptors. It had been going on for a while—since the mid-1990s, actually—but few had noticed it or understood its implications. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t about a new, clean energy source. It was about a long-established and rather pedestrian one: natural gas. And it really wasn’t about natural gas per se; it was about how natural gas isobtained.

See, no one was talking about “peak gas” in the 1990s. There was plenty of it, even if extracting and transporting it at prices acceptable to an energy-hungry planet was a challenge. In many natural gas plays, the process of wresting the gas from its subterranean strata simply didn’t pencil out. Then a hombre named Nick Steinsberger rode into town. Actually, he rode into a central Texas natural gas play known as the Barnett Shale. Steinsberger was a young engineer brimming with both talent and ambition, who worked for Mitchell Energy, a firm specializing in the extraction of shale gas. The company ran numerous wells on the Barnett Shale, but they were guttering out. So Steinsberger was given a mission: Somehow, some way, squeeze more gas from the Barnettoperation.

4/16/2018 8:30:10 PM

Noted no mention regarding energy storage in facilities like the Crescent Dunes site in Tonapah, Nv. They supply electricity to a portion of Las Vegas, 24/7. 110 megawatt with 1.1 gigawatt hours of energy storage. Seems, while perhaps not a panacea, the site works as intended.