AP: The Secret History of the Gas Revolution

T. Boone Pickens and the Myth of the Lone Entrepreneur

At a TED talk earlier this year, the oil and gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens dismissed President Barack Obama's claim in his State of the Union address that the technological innovations that resulted in today's glut of natural gas depended on 30 years of federal investment. "I witnessed my first frack job in 1953," Pickens told the crowd, "I hear the President say the DOE [the Department of Energy] invented it 30 years ago and I don't know what he's talking about."

Since then, the claim has become a conservative talking point. "We have the hydraulic fracturing and natural gas revolution because of private entrepreneurs," claimed a gas expert from the libertarian-minded Institute for Energy Research in National Journal, "not because of the federal government or federal programs."

But now, after an in-depth investigation, the Associated Press has come to the opposite conclusion: the federal role was crucial.

The AP report adds new details to the story first uncovered by the Breakthrough Institute last year in its investigation of the history of the gas revolution. AP found that DOE researchers helped gas explorers process drilling data on early supercomputers. The critical 3-D underground mapping technologies were developed to track Russian submarines during the Cold War. And the pioneering company, Mitchell Energy, received extensive federal help, according to AP, and "didn't even cover the cost of fracking on shale tests until the 36th well was drilled."

As for the fracking Pickens witnessed in the 1950s, it was of limestone, not shale. Explorers in the fifties were drilling past shale to get to limestone because it was not until much later that federally-funded research proved just how much gas was trapped in shales. Successfully fracking shales proved to be an utterly different challenge from fracking limestone.

Pickens says he fracked over 3,000 wells in his life. It made him rich. But he has no idea where shale fracking came from because he has little interest in finding out. Instead, he prefers the myth of the self-made oil and gas man.

In that, he stands in contrast to those who made the shale revolution possible. "You cannot diminish DOE's involvement," said former Mitchell geologist Dan Steward, who describes himself as "conservative as hell." Referring to government engineers and scientists working on shale gas, he said, "They did a hell of a lot of work and I can't give them enough credit for that."

All of the key researchers involved emphasize the importance of continued federal support for innovation of next generation energy technologies, whether nuclear or renewables. "It wouldn't be research if you already knew that it was going to be effective," said Alex Crawley, who headed up much of DOE's shale work. "These renewables have a huge upside," Penn State geologist Terry Engelder, who was involved in the early shale research, said. "In my view, the subsidies are really very appropriate."

What the shale gas pioneers stress is that because energy innovation takes a long time, America must keep investing in its post-gas future."Steward is proud of the shale boom, too, but warned that it won't last forever," noted AP. "'Don't be fooled by this. We've got to have a replacement' for shale gas, he said."

Photo credit: The Texas Tribune on Flickr.