History of the Shale Gas Revolution

December 14, 2011 | Alex Trembath,


The shale gas revolution, which has been the primary source of increased natural gas production since 2000, [1] is the result of technological breakthroughs more than three decades in the making. All of the key technologies -- massive hydraulic fracking, horizontal wells, and advanced earth imaging -- were developed by government scientists and by government agencies working with and sometimes funding private entrepreneurs.

Presidents Ford and Carter both prioritized gas exploration in the face of the 1970s energy crises. While there was a general awareness that large shale fields like the Devonian field in New England and the Texas Barnett Shale had ample reserves of natural gas, nobody -- not government agencies and not private industry -- had either the needed imaging tools nor cheap ways to extract it. [2]

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In a major effort begun in 1976, the Morgantown Energy Research Center (MERC), a lab within the Bureau of Mines, launched the Eastern Gas Shales Project. The Project mapped and tested core samples from unconventional gas deposits. MERC contracted with dozens of universities and private companies to demonstrate gas recovery from shale formations and other unconventional gas reserves. Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and other national labs contributed by modeling, monitoring, and evaluating the MERC-contracted demonstration projects. In 1976, two MERC engineers - Joseph Pasini III and William K. Overby, Jr. - patented an early directional drilling technique that would unlock substantial future natural gas recovery. [3]

From the mid-1970s through the end of the century, the DOE and parallel agencies at the state and federal level invested heavily in natural gas recovery technologies including horizontal drilling, downhole motors, and microseismic 3-dimensional mapping. [4] In the late 1970s, the American Public Gas Association, an industry consortium, partnered with the brand new DOE in the Commercialization Plan for Recovery of Natural Gas from Unconventional Sources. [5]

The DOE made the critical breakthrough of first demonstrating massive hydraulic fracturing (MHF) in Colorado in 1977. [6] As Fred Julander, head of Julander Energy and member of the National Petroleum Council, notes, "The Department of Energy was there with research funding when no one else was interested and today we are all reaping the benefits. Early DOE R&D in tight gas sands, gas shales, and coalbed methane helped to catalyze the development of technologies that we are applying today."

In 1986, a DOE/private venture first demonstrated a multi-stage directional fracture in the Devonian Shale. Large-scale hydraulic fracture recovery, however, would not come until the substantial R&D executed by Mitchell Energy, a Texas gas company headed by wildcatter George Mitchell. Here, again, the federal government would step in to aid the private sector.

Barnett Shale

In addition to innovating on top of platform technologies like MHF and directional drilling that were originally developed by the Energy Research and Development Administration, MERC, DOE, and other federal agencies, Mitchell Energy benefitted from a direct and sustained partnership with the federal government. In the 1980s Mitchell relied on DOE mapping techniques and research to understand the complex geology of tight shale formations. In 1991, Mitchell partnered with DOE and the federally funded Gas Research Institute (GRI) to develop tools that would effectively fragment formations in the Barnett Shale, the massive Texan field that now produces over 6% of all domestic natural gas. GRI's microseismic imaging data proved particularly useful through the 1990s up to 1997 when Mitchell Energy finally achieved economical shale gas extraction using an innovative fracturing application called slick water fracking. [7, 8]

Massive hydraulic fracturing. Horizontal wells. 3-D mapping and seismic imaging. These, in addition to other component technologies and site testing/characterization and demonstration projects, were the keys to shale gas recovery as we know it today. As with microchips, gas turbines, nuclear power, and the Internet, the federal government played a crucial role in the early development and commercialization of these core technologies.

Click here to read our op-ed in the Washington Post.


1. United States Energy Information Administration (EIA). "Annual Energy Outlook 2011."
2. "Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Methane Recovery from Coalbeds Symposium.' Morgantown Energy Technology Center. April 18-20, 1979.
3. "A Century of Innovation." National Energy Technology Laboratory, October 2010.
4. "Energy Research at DOE: Was It Worth It? Energy Efficiency and Fossil Energy Research 1978 to 2000." Committee on Benefits of DOE R&D on Energy Efficiency and Fossil Energy, Board of Energy and Environmental Systems, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, National Research Council. 2001.
5. See reference 2.
6. See reference 1.
7. Steinsberger, Nick. Former geologist for Mitchell Energy. Interview by Alex Trembath on December 13, 2011.
8. Steward, Dan. Former geologist for Mitchell Energy. Interview by Michael Shellenberger on November 30, 2011. Interview published here.