AP: The Secret History of the Gas Revolution

T. Boone Pickens and the Myth of the Lone Entrepreneur


Texas oil and business magnate T. Boone Pickens has denied the government's instrumental role in the extraction of shale gas. Pickens spoke at the Texas Tribune Festival on Tuesday.

September 25, 2012 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

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.


  • T Boone Pickens is a very smart oil guy. He has made a great deal of money, by taking risks in oil exploration and in acquiring and divesting energy investments. I admire him for that. However, I appreciate your posting pointing out the federal role in natural gas fracking. The DOE has made many other similar contributions, be it in energy efficiency, alternative energy or efficient transportation systems. Unfortunately, it gets very little credit for that. The one that particularly galls me is that Toyota gets the credit for the Prius—and they should. However, hybrid propulsion research was started by DOE way before car companies got seriously involved. As it matured, US car companies got quite involved under President Clinton’s PNGV program. No US car companies stepped up to commercialize it at that time—but Toyota did. Kudo’s to them for that—but we should recognize that DOE funding did play a crucial role in developing that technology.

    By Rajat Sen on 2012 10 12

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  • Thanks, Rajat, I had heard that PNGV advanced hybrid-gas technology, but we haven’t looked into it in any detail. Do you know anything more about what PNGV did? Cheers, Michael

    By Michael Shellenberger on 2012 10 12

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  • Michael:

    My company SENTECH Inc. provided technical support to DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE’s) for over 20 years. It was recently acquired by SRA International. Through SENTECh’s activities, I got to know a lot about all of EERE’s tecehnology development programs. Personally, my background is in batteries and fuel cells—so I was heavily involved with EERE’s PNGV and Hydrogen efforts. As long as I was a DOE contractor, it was difficult to publicly express my personal opinion. Now that I am retired it gives me more latitude. Thank you for your interest.

    By Rajat Sen on 2012 10 13

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  • It seems that the Department of Energy gets a lot of bad press when it comes to finding renewable energy sources and the technology behind it, especially this time of year when politics and gas prices are heavy in the media. However, the research behind energy takes a lot of time, innovative practices, and funding. These initiatives have to be perfected before being put out for public use. So, perhaps the press should lay off the Department of Energy and focus on issues that have quicker, cheaper remedies.

    Yes, fracking shale has provided gas for many years and the extraction methods will probably continue to be utilized for years to come until the gas crisis is resolved.

    By Hannah B on 2012 10 21

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