Obama’s Energy Revolution

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama referred to the findings of a Breakthrough Institute investigation, which found that 30 years of federal funding led to the shale gas revolution.

"It was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years," said the president, "that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock -- reminding us that Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground."

Obama is referring directly to a Breakthrough Institute investigation, which found that all the major technologies -- massive hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, 3-D mapping -- came from federal funding. Breakthrough's research was published in the Washington Post, with a longer history of shale gas and key interviews published at the Breakthrough.

Breakthrough deflated the popular mythology that it was private oilman George Mitchell acting alone -- without the help of the government -- who caused the shale gas revolution. Beyond the critical technologies, Breakthrough also found that Mitchell benefited from a special federal tax credit for unconventional gas, and help from the Department of Energy's Sandia National Lab.

"Our experience with shale gas shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don't always come right away," said Obama. "Some technologies don't pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy."

Obama's statement mirrors something one of Mitchell Energy's top geologists at the time, Dan Steward, who described himself as "conservative as hell," told Breakthrough.

"I don't bad mouth government involvement in solar and wind because we have to be experimenting with that," Steward said. "We're not far enough along for solar and wind to provide much energy. But government has to be looking down the road. Industry doesn't look as far down the road as the government should."

Last year, Obama noted that because "it's not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout history our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need."

Obama went on to refer to the role of the federal government in creating microchips, satellites, and the Internet -- the core technologies of the information technology revolution -- which had been highlighted in Breakthrough Institute's 2010 report, "Where Good Technologies Come From."