The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy
St. Martin’s Press
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010;
2016. 280 pages. Hardcover, $27.99.
Author Gary Sernovitz sees the American oil and gas renaissance as “the Internet of oil, a spark . . . that led to an industrial change of such scope and magnitude that we have woken up . . . in a once impossible world.” Yet public understanding of the shale revolution has lagged, leading to hype, scaremongering, and a failure to candidly discuss its urgent moral, technological, regulatory, and environmental challenges.
Sernovitz compares this to the fable of the blind men and the elephant in which each man touches only a part of the elephant and then extrapolates to the whole. The “green” environmentalists see only catastrophe, where fracking is a four-letter word; while the “black” oil industry sees only positive effects, including reduced carbon emissions and independence from foreign energy sources. Sernovitz sets out to describe the whole elephant.
A self-professed “liberal oilman,” Sernovitz is well qualified for the task. He is an engaging writer with an irrepressible sense of humor and the author of two novels: Great American Plain (2001) and The Contrarians (2002). As managing director at Lime Rock, an oil and gas private equity firm based in New York, he has a dozen years of experience in the industry. While not exactly neutral, he clearly understands the viewpoints of both the environmentalists and the industry.
His book is like a mash-up of The Daily Show and a National Geographic special. It tells how a bunch of small-scale underdogs like Aubrey McClendon (“the Steve Jobs of the shale revolution”) and George Mitchell (“the Henry Ford of the shales”) disrupted Shell and the other big boys of the American oil industry. Between chuckles, it explains the practical science of fracking, shorthand for fracturing.
Oil and gas, which originate by “pressure cooking” of organic matter in deeply buried shale rock layers, gravitate upward until trapped by impervious seal rocks. Traditional producers drilled through the seals to extract the pooled oil and gas held in the resulting reservoirs, even though the deeper and harder-to-mine source shales were richer lodes.
The revolutionary oilmen instead drill directly into the source shales, fracturing them to extract the oil and gas. Sernovitz calls this “robbing the mint.” They bore wells vertically down to and horizontally along the shale layer, sometimes several miles in total. After the casing and cementing of the wells, perforating guns are dropped down to punch through the well casing, creating millimeter-thick fractures in the adjacent rock.
Pressurized mixtures of water, chemicals, and sand are then pumped into the wells, forcing this frack fluid into the microscopic shale cracks. After the leftover fluid is pumped out and the pressure drops, the shale fractures open up and oil and gas start to flow. The remaining process water is either placed into disposal wells or cleaned and recycled.
Getting the impermeable shale to give up its contents requires a heavy industrial process—shaking, noisy, dirty, unpleasant to the community and hard on the environment. The chemicals in the process water are dangerous and methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse warming agent.
Green critics of fracking focus on the negative local and environmental issues. The famous 2010 documentary, Gasland, indicted shale drilling as a source of groundwater contamination. By the time a 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report that found “no evidence” of fracking-related impacts on drinking water resources was released, the persistent negative image had been created. The amount and impact of the other indictment—methane leakage from shale drilling—are still under debate. However, methane emissions have been steadily declining, and an EPA rule effective in 2016 requires drillers to further curb methane releases.
Sernovitz looks beyond local impacts with an even-handed discussion of global and national issues. The Greens claim that the oil industry is covering up its contributions to climate change. The Blacks respond that natural gas is displacing coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide for the same amount of fuel. The United States used 17 percent less coal in 2014 than in 2004 and has led the world in carbon dioxide emissions reductions because of shale gas.
But the Greens have another point: Fracking extracts more oil than natural gas. Cheaper and more abundant oil can make the fight against climate change more difficult. Lower gasoline prices delay the shift to more fuel-efficient transportation.
So the bitter words between Green and Black continue. Still, their interests align in areas such as decreasing fossil fuel use in places like China, whose emissions represent 29 percent of the world’s total, almost double that of the United States. For Sernovitz, “Reducing demand for coal from China, India, and other emerging countries is the grand battle in the fight against climate change.”
There is more of interest in this book than a short review can cover. America is now the largest oil and gas producer in the world, free to stand up to international energy bullies, to pursue foreign policy objectives more beneficial to us, and to transform our own economy, perhaps even reviving our lost manufacturing sector. But the boom has not been all good and simple. If you want to dig into the intriguing issues powering the energy revolution, then you definitely should read The Green and the Black.
David R. Godschalk is planning professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and coauthor of Sustaining Places: Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans (APA Planning Advisory Service, 2015).