Terry Engelder on Federal Role in Shale Gas Revolution


January 5, 2012 | Michael Shellenberger,

As a part of the Breakthrough Institute's in-depth investigation of shale gas extraction and the role of the federal government in the development of many of the key enabling technologies, we interviewed Terry Engelder, professor at the Penn State and one of Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers. Dr. Engelder has authored highly respected research on shale gas resources and is considered one of the nation's top experts on the geology and history of natural gas mining. As with our exclusive interview with Dan Steward, former Mitchell Energy Vice President, Engelder's testimony relates the long and productive partnership between the gas industry and the federal government that led to today's ongoing shale gas revolution. "The government got it really right," says Engelder. "In terms of a symbol of effective public-private venture, it's shale gas."


Breakthrough: How did you get started in shale gas research?

It was nuclear energy that first got me into gas shales. I worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1970s, which was concerned with mitigating earthquakes that could affect reactors in the Eastern US.

I looked at fractures in gas shales. The connection is straightforward, remains the same to this day: earth stress controls the orientation of hydraulic fracturing for gas shales as well as natural fractures. The physics of the process is identical.

My 1980 Journal of Geophysical Research paper was picked up by industry, in particular Shell and its subsidiary, Shell Western, which was trying to develop the upper Devonian [shale gas region] in Michigan in the 1980s. They phoned up and asked us to help understand the rocks in Michigan in the mid-1980s -- 1986 to 1987 -- to the field.

How would you characterize the government's role?

The government got it really right. In terms of a symbol of effective public-private venture, it's shale gas.

The Eastern Gas Shales projects and experiments in horizontal drilling were important. Those experiments should rise high in the list of things done and supported by the government starting in 1978 or so. The idea was to drill across the fractures and the shales that I'd been documenting for the NRC.

To bear fruit, it took 20 years. It started in 1977. We went beyond Carter and Reagan and were into the Clinton administration before Carter age research paid dividends.

Mitchell hired three of the engineers who were part of the Eastern Gas Shales project. I can't identify them by name.

[Note: Breakthrough Institute could neither confirm nor disconfirm that Mitchell hired three engineers from the Eastern Gas Shales Project.]

What is your view of the role of shale gas?

The fastest way to turn around emissions is replacing coal generation with gas generation. People talk about sequestering CO2. The best way is to leave coal in the ground. My major point in my recent Nature commentary is that you can't mitigate unless you have an economy under control.

I'd say go right to nuclear but the nuclear industry will take so long to scale up in a meaningful way.

As for Solyndra, you can't turn the solar panel industry off in six month because some experiment failed.

The amount of money spent on energy R&D right now is sadly lacking. This [shale gas research] really took 20 to 30 to 40 years before it really worked. In terms of solar, it's going to be the same.