Bill McKibben’s Misleading New Chemistry

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Fracking Debate

One could be excused for concluding, upon reading Bill McKibben’s latest anti-fracking jeremiad in the Nation, that a new Harvard study released in February has found that US methane emissions over the last decade have risen due to increasing natural gas production.   “This new Harvard data,” McKibben writes, “suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”

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The Year of the Good Anthropocene

Top Breakthroughs of 2015

In 2015, the Breakthrough Institute welcomed that debate. In April, several of us co-authored “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which states that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The theme of our summer Dialogue this year was “The Good Anthropocene,” where Clive Hamilton debated Manifesto coauthor Mark Lynas on our stage. We also released the fifth issue of our Breakthrough Journal, themed “The Good Anthropocene.” 

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Natural Gas Methane Problem Overstated

Research Shows CH4 Leakage A Minor Factor, Within Acceptable Ranges

Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.

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Lessons from the Shale Revolution

A Report on the Conference Proceedings

Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?

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Did the US Kill OPEC?

Why We Should Pay the Shale Revolution Forward

"Did the US kill OPEC?"

This is the question that New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter asks today, referencing Breakthrough Institute’s research, which found that 35 years of public-private investments led to the technologies that allow for the cheap extraction of natural gas and oil from shale.

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Interview with William Burnett, Formerly of the Gas Research Institute

The Gas Research Institute's Evolving Role in Shale Gas

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with William Burnett. William worked in energy R&D for the US Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, and Gas Research Institute (GRI). He retired from GRI as Executive VP, where he was responsible for R&D planning and management in natural gas supply, transportation, distribution, and utilization.

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Interview with Bob Hanold, Formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory

On the Partnership Office Between Los Alamos and Sandia

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with Bob Hanold, formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bob completed his PhD in engineering science at Case Institute of Technology and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1966, where he worked until his retirement in 1999. Although initially involved in microseismic fracture mapping and hydraulic fracturing for geothermal projects, he transitioned entirely to oil and gas projects with the formation of the Partnership Office.

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The Year of Our High-Energy Planet

Top Breakthroughs of 2014

If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.  

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High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.

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Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal

New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013

The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand. 

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Interview with Norm Warpinski, Director of Technology for Pinnacle

On the Early Experiments That Catalyzed the Shale Revolution

Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King talked with Norm Warpinski, a Halliburton fellow for Pinnacle – a Halliburton service. Of his many contributions to hydraulic fracturing, Norm is perhaps best known as a principal developer of microseismic monitoring, which was crucial to understand the nature of underground fractures. At Pinnacle, Norm works on developing new tools and analyses for hydraulic fracture mapping, reservoir monitoring, hydraulic fracture design and analysis, and integrated solutions for reservoir development. He previously worked at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 to 2005 on various projects in oil and gas, geothermal, carbon sequestration, and other geomechanics issues. 

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Interview with David Northrop, Formerly of Sandia National Labs

On the Partnership Office That Facilitated Public-Private Collaboration

David A. Northrop completed his BS, MS, and PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. He started working at Sandia National Lab in 1964 and worked there until his retirement in 1998. During his tenure, Northrop was heavily involved in fracture observation and shale mapping systems. In the following interview, Northrop talks about the early days of Sandia’s involvement in natural gas research, and the unique Partnership Office that facilitated public-private collaboration. 

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Innovation Needed for Gas to Bridge to Somewhere

New Nature Piece Tells Us What We Already Knew

A new research letter in Nature (McJeon et al 2014) concludes that globally abundant natural gas will not “discernibly reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” The paper models a scenario in which the US shale gas revolution is scaled globally. While natural gas displaces higher-carbon coal-fired power, zero-carbon power like nuclear and solar are also displaced, according to the model, and cheap gas encourages more energy consumption. The net impact is marginal: between 2 percent less and 11 percent more emissions in the authors’ “abundant gas” scenario:

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Collection: Natural Gas

The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on natural gas, centering around the history of the shale revolution, pragmatic climate policies, and technological innovation. Here is our collection of analysis on natural gas:

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Frequently Asked Questions About Natural Gas

Understanding the Shale Gas Revolution

What is natural gas?

Natural gas is methane (CH4), a combustible gas than can be used as fuel for automobiles, for industrial process heat, for residential uses like cooking, and for electricity generation in power plants.

Natural gas is found in a variety of geologic formations, including coalbed seams, sandstone, limestone, shales, and, frozen methane hydrates under the ocean floor. The extraction of natural gas from the ground also produces natural gas “associates” or “gas liquids” like propane, ethane, and butane, that are typically separated from methane and used for other commercial purposes. Because natural gas takes so many different forms and exists in so many different formations, vast quantities of it are found in most parts of the world.

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Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 

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US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas

A Response to CO2 Scorecard

Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.

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Electrify to Adapt

Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty

Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.

The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones

The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids

“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”

This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”

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Fracking’s War on Coal

Why Tech Innovation Matters Far More to the Environment than Pollution Regulations

In 1981, an independent Texas natural gas producer named George Mitchell realized that his shallow gas wells in the Barnett gas fields of Texas were running dry. He had sunk millions into his operation and was looking for a way to generate more return. Mitchell was then a relatively small player in an industry that by its own reckoning was in decline. Conventional gas reserves were limited and were getting increasingly played out. 

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How Ambitious Are the EPA’s Proposed Carbon Dioxide Reductions?

Everything Depends on Your Assumptions About the Future

The Obama administration’s proposed carbon dioxide reductions are larger than what the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts would happen without regulations, and similar to reductions that would be achieved if the carbon intensity of the power sector declines at the same pace it did between 2005 and 2013, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds.

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Energetic Africa

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

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Methane Leakage from Cows Higher than from Natural Gas Development

New Data from EPA, DOE, and EDF Confirm Declining Methane Leakage from Gas Prodution

Since the onset of the shale gas revolution, many have worried that emissions of fugitive methane — the main component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide on a molecule-for-molecule basis — are eroding the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas. Some have gone so far as to claim that natural gas is worse than coal because of excess methane emissions. But according recent measurements from the Environmental Protection Agency, total methane emissions have been going down, most rapidly in the natural gas system. 

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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Weighing the Benefits and Trade-Offs of Natural Gas

A Conversation with Michael Shellenberger & NRDC’s Kate Sinding

Below is an excerpt from the conversation. You can view the complete video, as well as an 11-minute highlight video and responses from other experts here.

MODERATOR:  Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program.  Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.  

Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his coauthor Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists. Welcome to both of you. 

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Mark Bittman Gets It Wrong On Gas

How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution

Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.

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Climate Skeptics Against Global Warming

What Conservatives Can Teach Liberals About Global Warming Policy

Over the last decade, progressives have successfully painted conservative climate skepticism as the major stumbling block to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon and the Koch brothers, the story goes, fund conservative think tanks to sow doubt about climate change and block legislative action. As evidence mounts that anthropogenic global warming is underway, conservatives’ flight from reason is putting us all at risk.

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Gas Industry Should Embrace Regulation

Sorting Out Legitimate and Illegitimate Concerns About Fracking

On Thursday, August 29, President Obama visited Binghamton, New York, and was met by a diverse collection of citizens. On one side were organized opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, protesting the President’s more-than-tacit support for an industrial practice with significant impacts on local communities. On the other side, members of the Joint Landowners Coalition hosted a picnic endorsing the economic and environmental benefits fracking would bring to New York. Similar face-offs have been staged recently at political events in Ohio, Colorado, and elsewhere. But while anti-fracking sentiment fomented by national environmental organizations have focused on groundwater contamination and fugitive greenhouse gases, the protests and recent surveys indicate that communities are far more concerned about issues like increased trucking traffic, pollution from gas processing plants, and the industrialization of virgin landscapes.

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Remembering George Mitchell

Tributes Honor Gas Innovator as Public Servant

“I don't want to take anything away from Mitchell,” wrote Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, in Foreign Policy after famed Texas gas innovator George Mitchell passed away in late July. “He was a great investor, philanthropist, and entrepreneur who doggedly pursued the idea that shale could be made to yield its vast oil and gas content. But contrary to the classic picture of the lone wolf inventor who persists alone in the face of indifference, ridicule, disappointment, and even contempt, Mitchell had a partner -- the American taxpayer and the federal government.”

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Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950

US Saved About 54 Billion Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Switching to Cleaner Energy

A new analysis finds that the vast majority of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with America’s carbon intensity decline since the mid-1900s can be attributed to the increasing shares of two energy sources: nuclear fission and natural gas. These two fuels have done more than any others to displace coal, and have saved the country 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. By comparison, in 2012 the entire world energy sector emitted 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

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Methane Leakage Not a Deal Breaker for Natural Gas

A Response to Anthony R. Ingraffea

In an op-ed published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea argued that natural gas should not be part of any strategy to confront climate change. “I can assure you that this gas is not ‘clean,'” Ingraffea argued, “because of leaks in methane, the main component of natural gas, the gas extracted from shale deposits is not a ‘bridge’ to a renewable energy future.” To make his case, Ingraffea cited two studies estimating methane leakage rates from shale gas production: one study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the other study by Ingraffea and colleagues at Cornell University.

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A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

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Mugged By Reality

Nordhaus on the Smarter Environmental Agenda

In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.

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President Obama, Coal Killer

How America's Climate Strategy Became Tied to Natural Gas

Last week, President Obama forcefully put natural gas at the center of his agenda to deal with climate change. "Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas," he acknowledged, recognizing the local controversies over fracking, "but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions." 

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How Natural Gas Can Help the Climate

Beyond the Fracking Wars

Environmentalists are facing a conundrum. Reducing greenhouse gas levels is urgent, although the greenies are remiss to accept natural gas as a viable vehicle, releasing 45 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal. Despite the possibilities, its imperfections remain a sore point among ecologists. 

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Obama’s Climate Pragmatism

President's Proposals Signal New Era for Climate Politics

President Obama’s big climate speech this week was historic, but not for the reasons many observers have suggested. To his credit, Obama is following through on his promise to pursue climate policy in “chunks” in the fall of 2010, after cap and trade had died the summer before. But these chunks are not the old climate agenda in new clothing.

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Coal Killer

How Natural Gas Fuels the Clean Energy Revolution

Amid a flurry of regulations and political activism against coal plants, one phenomenon has proved the most effective in killing coal in the United States: the arrival of cheaper, cleaner energy. Natural gas fuels the clean energy revolution by displacing dirtier coal, lowering carbon emissions, providing a platform for deployment of lower-carbon energy technologies, and creating economic surpluses that can be directed towards energy innovation. And while questions have arisen in the last several years regarding the local and global environmental impacts of the shale revolution, a survey of the empirical literature reveals gas to be a highly favorable environmental alternative to coal.

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San Onofre Nuclear Closure to Boost State Carbon Emissions by 8 Million Tons

Replacement Electricity Equivalent to Adding 1.6 Million Cars

The retirement of two nuclear reactors at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, announced Friday, is expected to increase state carbon emissions by at least 8 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of putting 1.6 million new passenger vehicles on the road, according to a Breakthrough Institute analysis.

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McKibben Doesn’t Do Fracking Math

Picking the Wrong Fight

Gas is leaking from pipes beneath New York City and Bill McKibben has confidently informed us that this is simply more evidence that the climate benefits of shale gas are much worse than many claim. Unfortunately the only real message from the article is that Bill McKibben is rather selective about evidence when it comes to fracking and that his apparent willingness to “do the math” on climate change does not transfer over very well to the rather important question of where we get our energy from.

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The Keystone Distraction

How Environmentalists Got Lost in a Dangerously Misguided Battle

Climate activists amassed an impressive army to march on Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty oil it would bring from Canada to U.S. refineries and world energy markets. In this fight, however, a relatively small volume of carbon-dioxide emissions is at stake -- the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that those from Keystone amount to a mere 0.2 percent of the “carbon budget” that scientists say we need to shrink in order to avoid catastrophic warming.

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The Surprising History of Energy Tech Innovation

AEIC Report Dispels Myths of Shale Gas Boom

The federal government played a crucial and often unexpected role in the decades-long technological innovations that led to the shale gas revolution, according to a new report from the staff of the American Energy Innovation Council, the latest independent investigation into the public sector origins of the North American gas glut first uncovered by the Breakthrough Institute.

The report shows how government funding and institutional support amounted to billions of dollars over three decades and a complex structure of policies that combined government and industry resources to solve a critical technological challenge: tapping a vast underground bounty of energy recently considered inaccessible. The conclusions further challenge the longstanding myth that the shale gas boom was brought about through private sector innovation alone and offer important lessons for energy innovation more broadly. 

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EDF: Lock In Soft Energy, Not Coal-Killing Gas

Why We Can't Leave Emissions Reductions to Establishment Greens

In response to our last blog post about how celebrity fracktivists have reversed the longstanding support of national environmental organizations for a coal-to-gas switch, the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy communications director Keith Gaby wrote us to say we had taken Fred Krupp's position on gas out of context.

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Fracktivists for Global Warming

How Celebrity NIMBYism Turned Environmentalism Against Natural Gas

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. “Fracking kills,” says Ono, who has a country home in New York. “It threatens the air we breathe,” says Redford. 

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Breakthrough’s Nordhaus vs. EDF’s Krupp

Krupp Declares Opposition to Expanding Natural Gas Production

Shale gas is the "killer app" in the fight against coal, Breakthrough chairman and cofounder Ted Nordhaus argued in a recent debate with Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp. The goal of climate policy must be to advance a zero-carbon revolution. Krupp called for more regulations and carbon pricing as well as opposition to expanded gas production.

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Deadly Air Pollution Declines Thanks to Gas Boom

Cleaner Air in Pennsylvania Inconvenient for Fracktivists

The wild artistic license of movies like Gasland notwithstanding, the common feeling in the media and, therefore, among the public, is that fracking is causing significant environmental damage (Energy Justice). However, it seems that fracking may be getting a bum rap, at least from the standpoint of toxic emissions.

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Debunking Rhodium

Natural Gas, Not Renewables, Drives Historic Emissions Declines

Natural gas has been rapidly replacing coal power in recent years, driving down U.S. emissions faster than in any country in the world. But to some renewable energy advocates who have long prophesied that solar and wind are on the cusp of replacing coal, such a reality can't possibly be happening.

Such appears to be the case with the Rhodium Group, which claimed recently that non-hydro renewables like solar, wind and biomass are responsible for 58% of recent US decarbonization, compared to only 38% for natural gas.

How does Rhodium claim that solar and wind had a greater impact than gas, even though the EIA shows that gas increased last year ten times more than wind, and nearly one hundred times more than solar? By using improper assumptions, and inventing a bizarrely indirect way of measuring what matters.

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Europe’s Climate Fail

How Renewable and Carbon Capture Policies Brought Back Coal

A few years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology was seen as the best way to clean up coal and cut carbon emissions. And Europe was seen as the expected leader in the field. But instead, reports the science journal Nature, Europe has fallen behind North America in the race to create systems that separate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases.

And what’s worse, Europe is increasingly turning to coal, the most polluting of all sources of electricity. In some European countries, reports The Economist, the amount of coal-generated electricity is rising by up to 50% a year, at annualized rates. Ironically, some experts say CCS is the only way to eliminate coal emissions.


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Obama’s Climate Cunning

Gas, Clean Tech, and the Path Ahead

The New Year will not mark a clean slate. Congress and the president will re-convene their hostilities. And while the impasse will prevent legislative action to fix the level greenhouse gas emissions, the president is nevertheless preparing a more insidious attack on climate change.

Re-election to the White House is giving President Obama the oomph he needs to tackle the effects of global warming — a topic that has been legislatively off-limits. To achieve his objectives, Obama is remaining persistent and is pursuing a high-tech, clean-tech economy in conjunction with his administration’s recently enacted environmental regulations.

“Addressing climate change is urgent,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, Calif. “Energy transitions take a long time and we need to get started.”

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Top 2012 Breakthroughs

New Senior Fellows Announced

The last year has been an exciting one for the Breakthrough Institute. We grew to 30 Senior Fellows and 50 Breakthrough Generation Fellows, hired new staff and hosted our second annual Breakthrough Dialogue. We launched our revamped digital home at The Breakthrough. And we continued to make the case for the critical importance of innovation to environmental quality and economic growth, shaping public debates over the future of clean energy, the planetary boundaries paradigm, shale gas, carbon taxes, nuclear energy, and much more.

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Why Renewables Need Gas

Our Hybrid Energy Reality

Does renewable energy need to be backed up by fossil fuels? The answer is yes, at least until large scale methods of energy storage are invented. However, the question is one that I would argue is uninformative. A more relevant question is: Can renewable energy supply electricity when demand is at its highest?

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Gas Continues Assault on Coal

The Disruptive Innovation of the Shale Revolution

The ongoing displacement of coal by natural gas in the US electric generating sector was neatly illustrated in two recent articles. The Washington Post examined it from the perspective of utilities faced with expensive decisions about which fuel to bet on for the future, while the Wall St. Journal looked at the resource and tax implications of this trend for states. The intensity of competition between coal and gas would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago, when the price and energy security advantages of the former seemed insurmountable. The shale gas revolution continues to upend conventional wisdom on energy.

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Announcing Energy Innovation 2013

Clean Energy: Ready for Prime Time?

Clean energy is at a crossroads. Thanks to public investments in the United States, Germany, China, and elsewhere, solar, wind, and battery technologies have improved significantly and become cheaper over the last five years. Yet renewables are still not as cheap as fossil fuels. Moreover, many of these investments, including wind's crucial production tax credit, are at risk of expiration or have already lapsed. Meanwhile, innovations in the production of natural gas are displacing coal, generating billions of dollars in consumer energy savings, and becoming the energy leader that few foresaw.

What then is the future of clean energy? Congress remains deeply divided over renewables, but President Obama has defended his clean tech investments and says energy innovation remains a high priority. Senate Energy Committee Chairs Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have expressed optimism that they can reach bipartisan agreement on new energy legislation. And natural gas and nuclear energy — two long-standing clean energy outliers — have received renewed attention due to possible inclusion in a clean energy standard. Never before has a clear-eyed assessment of emergent clean energy technologies been more important.

The Breakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation are excited to invite you to join us for Energy Innovation 2013, our third annual conference taking place the morning of January 29, 2013, at the JW Marriott down the street from the White House.

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Follow the Shale Gas Leader

Top Energy Agency Economist Urges Global Gas Revolution

ISTANBUL—New energy trends are bolstering the United States and China, giving their industries a sharp competitive edge over Europe’s and Japan’s in the next quarter-century, according to a major new study by the International Energy Agency. However, IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, suggested that Europe can arrest its long competitive slide if it reverses a thus-far halting approach to the development of shale gas and oil.

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Why Governments Must Pick the Right Energy Policy ‘Winners’

Carbon Pricing Will Encourage Gas More Than Renewables

There are almost audible sighs of relief in parts of the Whitehall establishment at today's news that Japanese firm Hitachi is set to buy the Horizon nuclear power project from German firms E.ON and RWE – a slender lifeline to the UK's stalling "nuclear renaissance." At the same time, others in Whitehall – including a worrying number of Conservative ministers – are driving for a new dash for gas and casting doubt on renewable energy.


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Uniting a Fractured Republic

Pragmatism, Innovation, and the Shale Gas Revolution

In 1981, George Mitchell, an independent Texas natural gas entrepreneur, realized that his shallow gas wells in the Barnett were running dry. He had millions of sunk investment in equipment and was looking for a way to generate more return on it. Mitchell was then a relatively small player in an industry that by its own reckoning was in decline. Conventional gas reserves were limited and were getting increasingly played out.

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The ‘Corporate Welfare’ Behind the Gas Revolution

The Hamiltonian Promise, from Fracking to Clean Tech

Not long after President Obama defended his green energy investments by pointing to decades of taxpayer money for the natural gas revolution, prominent conservatives responded by denying the government's role outright. "I hear the President say the DOE invented [fracking] 30 years ago," said T. Boone Pickens, "and I don't know what he's talking about." At a public forum last July, Romney adviser Linda Gillespie Stuntz said, "The American wildcatters who really developed the hydraulic fracturing technology that's made this energy bonanza a reality didn't have anything to do with federal government."

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Cheap Gas — Not EPA Regs — Driving Coal’s Decline

Mercury Regulations Having One-Fifth the Impact of Natural Gas

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post wrote this week that coal power generation in the U.S. is in sharp decline — but market forces, not environmental regulation, are driving the recent trend according to analysis in a new Brattle Group report. The primary reason is natural gas prices. RFF research generally bears this out — and indicates that it should lead to lower electricity prices and lower carbon emissions. There is one important difference: the Brattle report is primarily about how much coal generation is permanently retired, while this post on RFF’s work is mostly about dispatch — that is, how much different plants actually run and generate electricity. But the overall story is similar.

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You Didn’t Frack That

How Energy Innovation Happens

Governor Mitt Romney doubled-down on his criticisms of President Barack Obama’s energy policies in last night’s town hall debate, saying the president has stood in the way of the private sector’s full exploitation of America’s fossil fuel resources.

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The Other F-Word of Shale Drilling

Where the Interests of Greens and Industry Converge

If you think fracking is a deal-breaker, then you have not thought much about “flaring.” Both controversies could undo the shale gas industry, although the burning off of natural gas found alongside oil discoveries is something that oil drillers and green groups alike would prefer to minimize. But how?

Shale gas derived from sedimentary rocks deep underground needs to be captured, piped and processed before it is consumed. That requires the development of an infrastructure, or the pipelines necessary to carry the fuel to the utilities that would burn it to make electricity. Beside piping it, the energy companies are considering liquefying the gas and creating LNG that would be globally shipped.

In the absence of either option, the gas is flared, meaning it literally goes up in smoke — in the form of all types of types emissions. That inflames not just the environmentalists who are concerned about greenhouse gases but also investors who furthermore say that such fuels are valuable assets that must be monetized.

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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.

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The Science of Bias

How Some Scientists Contribute to Science Denialism

It is frightening to observe how persistently people reject evidence that presents some truth inconvenient to their deeper beliefs and self identities; excessive fear of vaccines, or fluoride, or nuclear power… denial of climate change, evolution, the age of the earth! Stunning. Some scientists dismiss such thinking as ‘irrational’. The more enlightened ones, informed by recent research into the realities of human cognition and the limits to perfect reason, accept this denialism as reality, but still blame the lay public for refusing to accept what the bulk of the facts say. May I suggest that there is another community that shares some of the blame for the denial of scientifically developed evidence... some of the scientists themselves.

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Between Shale and a Hard Place

Fracking Drives Down Emissions But Drives Up Political Controversy

Presidential politics these days is about improving economic production and job creation. And while the focus lately is on which half of the country is more entitled to the federal pie, the attention should shift in part to the unyielding trends that now permeate the climate change debate.

As recent data shows, cutting the level of heat-trapping emissions and enhancing economic productivity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the emergence of the shale gas revolution has not only reduced carbon dioxide levels to their lowest levels in 20 years but it is also coinciding with the reduced use of coal. In other words, natural market forces are negating what many say is “man-made” global warming.

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The Way We’re Fighting Over Fracking is All Fracked Up

David Ropeik on the Frames of the Fracking Debate

The fracking debate is producing a lot of natural gas and a growing amount of hot air about whether fracking is a good thing or a bad thing. Most of these opinions have less to do with the facts than with how those facts are framed, and what frame of mind people are in as they form those opinions. Fracking is yet another example of the subjective, instinctive, affective way human cognition deals with risks, and it offers sobering lessons about the limits on our ability to reason about complex modern issues like this.

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A New Climate Paradigm

Gas-Driven Carbon Reductions

U.S. emissions have plummeted 7.7 percent since 2006, thanks to the rapid switch from coal to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Where did all this cheap gas come from? A concerted, public-private effort dating back to the mid-1970s to cheaply extract gas from shale. There is a clear lesson for those concerned about global warming: seek public-private investments in technological innovation to make clean energy cheap.

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Coal Rising in Europe: Gas Eyes the Throne in the US

Despite highly touted climate policies, European utilities are rushing to capitalize on the cheapest and dirtiest source of electric power in the continent: coal. A combination of low carbon permit prices under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and increased coal imports from the United States has made coal the most profitable fuel for power generation. Meanwhile, the ongoing American shale gas boom -- powered in part by decades of federal investments in shale drilling technologies -- is accelerating the closure of US coal-fired power plants.

According to Bloomberg, demand for coal grew 3.3 percent last year, the fastest pace since 2006. Coal's resurgence is as big a surprise to European environmentalists as the shale revolution is to their US counterparts -- natural gas remains relatively expensive in Europe, and the emissions penalty levied by the ETS has dropped so low in recent months that coal has become much more competitive than gas for European utilities.

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Interview with Alex Crawley, Former Program Director for the Energy Research and Development


Federal agencies played a leading role in the development of shale gas fracturing technologies, according to former head researcher Alex Crawley. Crawley, the former Program Manager at the federal Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, a precursor to the Department of Energy), oversaw a significant portion of the federal research that went into the development of shale gas fracturing technologies. As a Breakthrough Institute investigation has uncovered, federal agencies like the Department of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory led a sustained effort to adapt conventional hydraulic fracturing techniques to shales, where the geology is much more complex and difficult to tap.

Crawley discusses the contribution of diamond-studded drill bits, microseismic imaging, and other advanced gas extraction technologies that were the products of smart public-private research and commercialization efforts.

Click here for to download our history of the government's role in shale gas fracturing development.

The Breakthrough Institute: What was your role at the Department of Energy?

Alex Crawley: In '74 I moved to Washington for a development program within the Department of Interior. While I was there ERDA [the Energy Research and Development Administration, a precursor to the DOE] was formed. The Bureau of Mines was moved into ERDA and they offered me the job of program manager in the gas program.

From there I became the Associate Director of the DOE's National Petroleum Technology Office in Tulsa.

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Gas Boom Poses Challenges for Renewables and Nuclear

The ongoing shale gas boom and the advent of low natural gas prices has pushed back the goal posts for clean energy technologies like wind, solar, and nuclear power, according to a new fact sheet released by the Breakthrough Institute. While significant progress has been made in low-carbon technologies in recent years, continued innovation and cost declines will be necessary for clean tech to become broadly competitive with natural gas on an unsubsidized basis.

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Have US Emissions Peaked?

America's newfound abundance of natural gas, unlocked by decades of public and private investment in new shale gas drilling technology, is helping drive US CO2 emissions down even as the economy recovers, according to new data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

This trend is principally the result of the ongoing transition from coal to natural gas in the electric power sector. Coal, long the dominant power source in America, has faced a tightening gauntlet of pollution regulations in recent years while hydraulic fracturing in shale has expanded the nation's natural gas reserves and driven prices to record lows. Consumption of gas-fired electricity, which emits roughly half as much CO2 as coal-fired generation, increased 2.5 percent in 2011. Coal use, meanwhile, shrank 4.6 percent. Coal now supplies less than 40 percent of total electricity generation in the United States -- the lowest levels seen in 33 years. Natural gas reached the highest consumption levels seen since 1973, when the EIA began recording data.

Cheap, cleaner gas means effectively flat emissions growth in the coming decades, according to EIA estimates. Emissions in the United States peaked in 2007 at 6.3 billion metric tons and then immediately plummeted under the pull of the Great Recession. The ongoing transition from coal to gas, however, is projected to keep US CO2 emissions below the 2007 peak over the coming decades, even as the economy recovers. According to the EIA, emissions in 2011 shrank 1.9% below 2010 levels despite twelve straight months of economic growth. The EIA projects 2020 emissions at 8.1 percent below the 2007 peak, and 2035 emissions 3.9 percent below -- a return to growing emissions, yes, but very slow growth by historical standards.

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US Government Role in Shale Gas Fracking History: An Overview

The history behind the shale gas boom remained relatively unknown until late 2011, when researchers at the Breakthrough Institute conducted an extensive investigation revealing the role that federal agencies like the Department of Energy and the National Laboratories played in supporting gas industry experimentation with shale fracking.

Featured in the Washington Post and the President's 2012 State of the Union, this Breakthrough investigation enunciates again the crucial role that the federal government has always played in technological innovation.

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US Government Role in Shale Gas Fracking History: A Response to Our Critics

The technological revolution allowing for the cheap extraction of natural gas from shale occurred thanks to more than three decades of government subsidies for research, demonstration, and production, a new Breakthrough Institute investigation finds.

Both directly and indirectly, the government was behind the critical moments and tools in the shale gas revolution –– massive hydraulic fracking (MHF), 3-D mapping, horizontal drilling, and horizontal wells. Here are responses to Breakthrough's critics:

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CNN Blows Obama SOTU Shale Gas Fact Check

"They did a hell of a lot of work, and I can't give them enough credit for that. DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE's involvement." So said Dan Steward, former geologist and Vice President for Texas-based gas company Mitchell Energy, in an interview with the Breakthrough Institute.

In a recent edition of their political fact-checking series, CNN makes glaring historical omissions in their claim that the private sector, not the government, was the leading developer of the technologies that led to the modern shale gas boom.

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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.

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Terry Engelder on Federal Role in Shale Gas Revolution

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."

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New Investigation Finds Decades of Government Funding Behind Shale Revolution


The technological revolution allowing for the cheap extraction of natural gas from shale occurred thanks to more than three decades of government subsidies for research, demonstration, and production, a new Breakthrough Institute investigation finds.

Both directly and indirectly, the government was behind the critical moments and tools in the shale gas revolution - massive hydraulic fracking (MHF), 3-D mapping, horizontal drilling, and horizontal wells.

"I'm conservative as hell," Dan Steward, the former Mitchell Energy geologist whose company pioneered shale gas in Texas, told us. But when asked about the role of government, Steward told us, "They did a hell of a lot of work, and I can't give them enough credit for that. [The Department of Energy] started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE's involvement."

Steward said the government directly or indirectly supported Mitchell energy every step of the way. "[The government] helped us to evaluate how much gas was there and evaluate its critical properties," he explained. "They helped us with our first horizontal well. They helped us with pressure build-ups. And we worked with them on crack mapping."

For more expert analysis on the development of shale gas extraction technologies, see our interview with Penn State's Terry Engelder.

While Jimmy Carter is often pointed to as the President who initiated the energy push in response to the oil crises of the early seventies, it was Republican President Gerald Ford who began a concerted federal effort to seek "unconventional" natural gas in response to shortages. "The DOE's [1976] Eastern Gas Shales Project [in the Appalachia basin] determined there was a hell of a lot of gas in shales," explained Steward. "Mitchell was interested in Barnett [shale] and his geophysicist said, 'It looks similar to the Devonian [shale], and the government's already done all this work on the Devonian.'"

"Mitchell raided the EGSP [Eastern Gas Shales Project] folks for help," Penn State geologist Terry Engelder told us, "and EGSP support came from that 10-fold ramp up of DOE" in the mid-seventies.

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History of the Shale Gas Revolution


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.

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Interview with Dan Steward, Former Mitchell Energy Vice President

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Mitchell Energy's first horizontal well was subsidized by the federal government, according to former geologist and Vice President for Mitchell. "They did a hell of a lot of work," said Steward, "and I can't give them enough credit for that. DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE's involvement."

The federal government's work on shale gas began in the 1970s. As Steward recalls, "The DOE's [1976] Eastern Gas Shales Project [in the Appalachia basin] determined there was a hell of a lot of gas in shales. It was the biggest accumulation of data and knowledge to date." From there, Mitchell and his team experimented to find the best and most economical way to fracture the Barnett Shale. Variations of fracking techniques through the 1980s led George Mitchell to bring the Department of Energy and the Gas Research Institute in in 1991. "By the early 1990s," said Steward, "we had a good position, acceptable but lacking knowledge base, and then Mitchell said, 'Okay, I'm open to bringing in DOE and GRI' in 1991."

Mitchell Energy's blockbuster contribution to the modern natural gas boom is not discredited by a partnership with federal agencies. Steward is the first to point out the pivotal long-term role the government must play in technological innovation: "Government has to be looking down the road. We really cannot wait to develop those other energies. Industry doesn't look as far down the road as the government should."

For more, see the Breakthrough Institute's "History of the Shale Gas Revolution" and "A boom in shale gas? Credit the feds" by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the Washington Post.

The Breakthrough Institute: How would you describe the government's role in the shale gas revolution?

Dan Steward: In the seventies we started looking at running out of gas, and that's when the DOE started looking for more.

The DOE's [1976] Eastern Gas Shales Project [in the Appalachia basin] determined there was a hell of a lot of gas in shales. It was the biggest accumulation of data and knowledge to date. It set the stage for people to have the basic background and caused people to start asking questions, and that's always important.

They did a hell of a lot of work, and I can't give them enough credit for that. DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE's involvement.

BTI: Did Reagan cut the R&D money for unconventional gas research?

I know I'm conservative as hell, but the truth is that Reagan did a world of good for the gas business. When Carter was in, he put a moratorium on gas fired electrical plants. He was worried we were running out of gas. But with the moratorium on new plants the demand for developing more gas started going away. That is no fault of anybody, and I'm not throwing stones, I'm just telling you what happened. When Reagan came back, Reagan said we need those plants. This is where Mitchell came in. Mitchell felt like there was a lot of gas, and it wasn't until he could get the Barnett [shale gas] work that he felt he could prove he get it.

BTI: What was Mitchell doing?

DS: Mitchell got involved in the Cotton Valley limestone looking for gas, but it was tight rock, and George said, "I want to frack it." But he had a hard time to get his people to go along.

Mitchell was interested in Barnett and his geophysicist said, "It looks similar to the Devonian, and the government's already done all this work on the Devonian."

BTI: What help did you get from the government?

DS: In the 1990s they helped us to evaluate how much gas was there, and evaluate the critical properties as compared to Devoninan shale of Appalachia basin. They helped us with our first horizontal well. They helped us with pressure build-ups. And we worked with them on crack mapping. In 1999 we started working with GTI (formerly GRI) on re-fracks of shale wells.

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