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The Boom

How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World
By Russell Gold

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The Boom

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JUST ADD WATER


A few years ago, my parents faced an unexpected choice.

Chesapeake Energy called them with an offer. The company wanted to drill for natural gas underneath 102 acres of land they owned with some friends in north central Pennsylvania. Would they be interested in signing a lease? The offer was $400,000 up front, plus royalties on any gas unearthed from the ground. It was an astounding amount of money for terrain so rocky and hilly that the local dairy farmers didn’t want it.

Despite a name that evokes sailboats and seafood, Chesapeake hails from landlocked Oklahoma City. Once little more than a two-person partnership, it grew to drill more wells than any other company in the world. At its peak, it held leases to punch holes in an area the size of Kentucky. Its annual budget topped $20 billion in 2012, and it spent a chunk of that on a sophisticated advertising campaign that preaches the gospel of domestic energy production and attempts to calm fears about hydraulic fracturing. Chesapeake drills more than a thousand wells every year and fracks each one. Once the bit churns through the dense rock, the company pumps in millions of gallons of water and chemicals to create a network of sinewy fractures, each one an escape route for trapped hydrocarbons. Gas and oil freed from the shale flows out of the cracks and up the well. The recipe that Chesapeake said it was following was quite simple: just add water. The reality, however, was more complex.

My parents’ property was valuable to Chesapeake because it sits atop one of the largest shale formations in the world. The Marcellus Shale was once so obscure that it appeared in only the most detailed geologic maps of the area. The charcoal gray rock runs from New York, crosses Pennsylvania, and stretches into Ohio and West Virginia. Near the Farm, as we call the property, it is more than a mile deep. Over millennia, the shale cooked at just the right temperature and pressure to turn long-dead microorganisms into trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Chesapeake wanted to extract the gas and sell it to households and power plants. Sometime in the future, when my parents turn on their stove or television in Philadelphia, about 180 miles to the southeast, some of that energy might have begun its journey a mile beneath their property.

The size of Chesapeake’s offer shocked my parents, but not me. I was then—and still am—an energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. In the mid-2000s, my beat was the “independents,” a group of midsized companies that didn’t sell gasoline or operate refineries. They drilled for oil and gas in the United States. A scrappy bunch, they were the descendants of the industry’s wildcatter heritage. They didn’t have the money and engineering muscle to compete with globe-straddling energy titans such as Chevron and BP for giant projects in the Middle East or deepwater exploration off the African coast. The independents fed on the table scraps of the energy feast.

But the picked-over United States held a surprise. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, little-known independents had figured out a way to get natural gas from dense slabs of buried shale rock. I reported on this new phenomenon and wrote the first national newspaper articles about the gas around Fort Worth in the geologic formation known as the Barnett Shale. I watched the transformation of the suburbs, as Little League fields turned into tawny rectangular drilling pads. I had a front-row seat as this energy upheaval ranged from Texas to Arkansas and Oklahoma and then vaulted to North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Using fracking, the independents found an unbelievable amount of gas—and then oil as well. Early optimistic estimates of how much was available turned out to be absurdly conservative. Even Exxon Mobil, the embodiment of the modern energy behemoth, began to look for a way to get involved.

Not long before the energy industry beat a path to my parents’ doorstep, I traveled to Pittsburgh to write an article about the leasing and drilling in southwestern Pennsylvania. This early drilling took place hundreds of miles away from the Farm. Fracking was spreading farther and faster than I had realized.

My parents and their friends bought the Farm in 1973 and built a small house. It was a place to get away from Philadelphia for a weekend, a couple hours up the Pennsylvania Turnpike but a world away from their brick row house and busy city life. Back in the 1970s, they were immersed in the left-wing, antiwar politics of the day. For the first few years, they called the property Oriente, after the Cuban province where Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara began their revolution. From their first days as landowners, these urbanites stood out in this conservative and poor part of the state. While their neighbors in Sullivan County worked long hours to wring a living from their acres, the white-collared Philadelphians kept their land untouched. Making money from the land wasn’t in the plan.

The trust documents reflect their vision. There were eight owners. Each owner, or couple if married, would pay an equal share. If a couple wanted to sell their share, they wouldn’t profit. They would get back the money they put in to buy the property and anything paid over the years for taxes and upkeep. Drafting the trust in an era of antigovernment protests, they figured, when the revolution came in the United States, they could always escape from the chaos to rural Pennsylvania. In the more likely scenario, in their minds, of a government crackdown on radical dissidents, the house could be a way station on the way to exile in Canada. And if none of this Armageddon came to pass, it would be a place for inexpensive vacations, where their city kids would have a chance to run around the woods and swim in a pond.

That anyone would want to drill wells on the land in search of natural gas was beyond the realm of imagination. This wasn’t Texas. When my mother called me to discuss the offer, she wanted to know what I thought. Should they sign the lease? It is a complex question, and answering it requires weighing sacrifice and opportunity, money and the environment. As a reporter, I spend my working hours talking to people who work in the industry and live near its wells. I think about how much energy the world consumes and where it comes from. There are no easy answers to the energy puzzle. There are unforeseen costs and necessary evils.

What the independents set in motion has changed an entire global industry and upended the traditional energy order. The emergence of vast, untapped energy stores, literally under our feet, allows natural gas to challenge coal and nuclear power as the dominant fuel used to make electricity. It opens the door for renewable energy to emerge as a force in its own right. But it also extends the age of fossil fuels for decades, a profound challenge to the climate. The revolution had come, after all, but it wasn’t the one my parents feared in the 1970s. It also wasn’t in Philadelphia. It was on the Farm in Pennsylvania, and in metropolitan Fort Worth, northern Louisiana, frigid North Dakota, and rural Ohio. The revolutionaries also weren’t disaffected Philadelphians, they were geologists and petroleum engineers from Texas A&M University.

This revolution is transforming the United States. To a remarkable extent, this once-obscure oil-field technique defines the nation’s economic and environmental future. Fracking has unleashed more oil and natural gas than anyone thought possible. It is providing an abundance of domestic energy, helping to drive a rebirth of manufacturing, and easing dependence on overseas energy peddlers. Accessing this energy requires tens of thousands of new wells, each fracked with enough water to fill several Olympic swimming pools and hundreds of gallons of chemicals. It also requires turning whole counties into industrial zones, complete with fleets of trucks, air quality concerns, a disruption of nature, and fear that water aquifers will be poisoned.

Modern societies run on fossil fuel. There is a direct connection between the number of jobs, cars, factories, and computers a country has—in short, its economic prosperity—and its energy consumption. Every day, the world consumes ninety million barrels of oil. Nearly one of every five of those barrels slakes the thirst of the United States’s economy and commuters. America is the most affluent nation in the history of the world, and it consumes more per person than any other major country ever has. Oil—and its main product, gasoline—has become a birthright of modern industrialized economies. We pull into gas stations and expect there to be enough gasoline to fill our tanks. Gasoline is everywhere, but it is invisible. It flows out of the pumps, through thick synthetic rubber hoses, and into our cars. You can smell it and occasionally see a hazy vapor. But you rarely, if ever, see it. Where does it come from? Not from the gas station on the side of the road. That is its last, brief stopover in a long journey.

Much of this energy comes from overseas. Without thinking about it, we have exported the dirty work of finding and developing oil fields, along with the environmental and social costs, to other nations. Until a few years ago, we planned to do the same for natural gas. But this dynamic is changing. Increasingly, crude oil consumed in the United States begins life in places such as North Dakota and South Texas. Fracking allows America to produce the gas we need—and much of the oil also—in our backyards. The promise and peril of energy production is coming home. The traditional energy system is being torn down and rebuilt. It’s an opportunity to take a hard look at the energy we use.

In 2008 a small Canadian energy advisory firm issued a report titled The “Shale Gas Revolution.” The name stuck and is now used widely, mostly by supporters of this new energy production who want to emphasize how big and pervasive the changes are. I also refer to it as a revolution, but for different reasons. It is a revolution because the old order is tumbling. King Coal’s reign as the nation’s predominant fuel for making electricity is tenuous, and even petroleum’s stranglehold on powering vehicles is weakening. As with many revolutions throughout history, once change is set in motion, the end result can be unexpected. Revolutions also create their own stories, creation myths, and hagiographies, as well as boogeymen. This book tells the story of fracking and how it rose from a minor oil-field tool to a world-changing technology. It is also an attempt, amid the tumult, to dispel some fictions that have risen to accepted “fact.”

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The Farm isn’t part of my world anymore. When I hit my teenage years, spending a weekend with my parents and older sister had become excruciatingly boring. Completing thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles in a house without a television didn’t cut it.

As I was stumbling toward adulthood, in the 1980s, two men in faraway Texas and Oklahoma were going through their own changes. In time, they would help propel shale rocks from obscurity into the topic of boardroom presentations in the highest echelons of American capitalism. George Mitchell was a most unusual Texas oilman: liberal and an early convert to sustainable development. He created the Woodlands, north of Houston, to showcase that building a new community didn’t require bulldozing all the trees. At the same time, the eponymous Mitchell Energy & Development was one of the largest oil and gas companies in Houston, the world’s energy capital. Its most important holding was a gas field around Fort Worth.

Mitchell geologists noticed that every time their wells passed through shale rock in search of conventional pockets of oil and gas, instruments registered a significant gas presence. There was fossil fuel in the rocks, but it was as inaccessible as the sword in the stone from Arthurian legend. Mitchell’s long wells could reach the gas, but the company’s engineers had neither the tools nor the knowledge to get it out. Open up a textbook from that era and look up how to drill a well into shale and, if it mentioned the rocks at all, its advice was to look elsewhere. But in 1982 Mitchell Energy drilled the C. W. Slay #1 well to target the gas trapped inside the Barnett Shale, a thick geological formation that covers five thousand square miles, fanning out from Dallas to the west and south. Though the company had fracked wells in the past, it had never tried fracking shale rock. It worked, sort of. Gas flowed from the shale. But it was expensive. As a wildcat well, it was underwhelming. But as a science experiment, it showed promise.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, the company drilled a couple wells into the Barnett Shale each year. Mitchell’s engineers kept chipping away at this rock, trying to figure out how to force the shale to give up its gas. They pumped in heavy, gelatinous liquids they hoped would muscle their way in. Then, as they were ready to give up, a young engineer came up with a simple and elegant solution to cracking open the rock that would make these shale wells both less expensive and more bountiful. It was a new approach to fracking that used more horsepower and employed water, the Earth’s most abundant liquid. It was the beginning of the revolution. By then, Mitchell was nearly eighty years old. At the time, his children weren’t interested in the oil field, and he wanted to sell his company. But the rest of the industry remained skeptical about his shale wells. Wasn’t this new technique just a ploy by aging management to hype the company and get a buyer to pay top dollar?

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When Mitchell was first trying to crack the shale puzzle, a different oilman was starting out. In 1981 Aubrey McClendon returned to his hometown of Oklahoma City after attending Duke University. Oklahoma City was in the midst of an energy boom. Global events led to a doubling and then a tripling of oil prices. He came home to prosperity, Cadillacs, and new skyscrapers. But he wasn’t a geologist or an engineer. He was an aspiring accountant who had graduated from college magna cum laude with a degree in history. He entered the energy industry and soon became a landman. His job was to convince landowners to sign leases to allow rigs to drill for oil and natural gas on their property. In 1982 a global recession led to a swift collapse in crude prices, and the city’s banks reeled from aggressive oil loans. The local Penn Square Bank failed. It was the first of more than one hundred Oklahoma bank failures. Bankruptcy auctioneers replaced those Caddys as the city’s unofficial symbol.

It must have been quite an education, unlike any that McClendon had received at Duke. He witnessed the boom-and-bust nature of oil and gas. He saw the riches available if you could time the rise and fall of volatile commodities correctly, and he also saw how money made all this possible. In time, he would go on to found Chesapeake Energy and become a convert to the potential of shale gas. He would do more than anyone else to promote shale gas. He was part pied piper, part early adopter, and part rapacious capitalist. Those dense rocks that resemble an old-fashioned chalkboard would make him a billionaire, before he nearly lost it all. McClendon would use his energy wealth to advance his energy and political agenda, assemble a world-class wine collection, and uproot the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association, bringing his hometown its first professional sports franchise, renamed the Oklahoma City Thunder. More than anyone else, he would usher in an era of energy abundance.

History is full of odd ironies. The birth of shale gas is no exception. An environmentally minded oilman, George Mitchell, pioneered a way of cracking open rocks with water and chemicals that would come to embody one of the greatest environmental fears of the twenty-first century. And a right-wing oilman, Aubrey McClendon, would become an outspoken prophet for an abundant, low-carbon source of energy.

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Not long after Chesapeake inquired about leasing the Farm, my father spent a day driving around to visit neighbors and discovered that many had signed leases already. The reality sunk in. Future drilling locations surrounded the Farm. “We believed they would go under our property and get the gas anyway,” he told me later. It is an old fear. At the beginning of his classic novel Oil!, Upton Sinclair captured how the industry played on this worry. “Take it from me as an oilman,” the budding tycoon J. Arnold Ross tells a group of neighbors. “There ain’t a-goin’ to be many gushers here at Prospect Hill; the pressure under the ground will soon let up, and it’ll be them that get their wells down first that’ll get the oil.” This race to drill and drain free-flowing reservoirs was how it worked at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it is no longer the case. Still, the fear remains.

My mother called me again. “It is going to happen, and it is going to be obtrusive,” I said. But it wasn’t necessarily all bad, I added. Gas was a low-carbon energy source. By signing the lease, she was contributing to its growth. Until you sign the lease, you have the upper hand, I told her. They want your land. Craft an agreement that gives you a say over where the wells will be drilled to keep them on the periphery of the property, out of sight. It was possible for the industry to coexist with the land. In 2004 I visited Ted Turner’s ranch in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is a spread so beautiful, it was once considered as a possible national park. Turner allowed gas drilling but wrote a lease that contained stipulations to make sure there was minimal impact. The energy company could bring only so many trucks onto his property at any one time. The wells were camouflaged behind low walls. The company tried four different shades of paint before Turner’s ranch manager settled on one that blended with the ponderosa pines. I suggested that my parents take a similar approach.

The Farm’s owners met in March 2009. “There was the inevitability of change,” my father recalled. “It was coming. All of our neighbors, all of the land around us, had signed. We were really concerned we would get all the negative—the trucks, the noise—and none of the positive stuff: the money.”

My parents and their friends signed the twenty-page lease in October 2009. In January 2011 the Oklahoma City company drilled the Matt 2H well at the cattle-guard gate to the property, fracking it in August. The Farm’s owners had become partners with Aubrey McClendon. Did these left-wingers, now balding and with gray hair, members of the Philadelphia upper middle class, do the right thing? These days, my sons have started going to the Farm every summer with their grandparents. Was the choice to sign the lease going to change the land? Or, by signing the lease and throwing their lot in with fracking, were my parents helping secure a future for their grandchildren filled with low-carbon gas and renewable energy?

There is a story my parents like to tell about the summer of 1973, as they were building the house that has become part of the lore of the land. A truck arrived and unloaded the house on pallets. None of the Philadelphians had any experience with building or hard labor. Three were newly minted lawyers and community organizers. My mother was getting ready to attend medical school. They gamely threw themselves into the job. My father volunteered to handle the wiring. He had taken electric shop in seventh grade, but when a county inspector arrived, he pronounced the wiring out of code. My father had used electrical boxes that were too small. Small bribes were the way to navigate Philadelphia’s bureaucracy, so he figured the Sullivan County inspector wanted a payoff.

As the inspector walked away, my father trotted after him with $50 in his pocket. Rambling, he described how things were done in Philadelphia. The inspector understood the message. “You see those little kids back there?” he said, pointing to a two-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. “If anything happened to those kids because of the wiring, I would never forgive myself.” The inspector was talking about me and my sister. He walked away, the $50 still in my father’s pocket.

The inspector had the right approach. If you are going to build something, make sure it is safe. He refused to sign the papers until the wiring was done right. My father replaced the electric boxes. A few days later, the inspector approved the job. The United States faces a similar challenge. We are tearing down the old energy order and building a new one, but are we doing it responsibly? Is it enough to be passive consumers of energy, turning on lights and turning up the thermostat, and relying on the energy industry to make sure the electrons and gas molecules are there for us? What does it mean to promote ethical energy production, and how can it be done?

After my folks signed the lease on their land, I struggled with a set of nagging questions as I traveled the country, digital recorder and steno pads in my backpack, talking to people in fracking hot spots. Had my parents made the right choice? Had I given them good advice? Was the nation making a horrible mistake, or were these energy executives ushering in a new era of energy that we can all embrace? Or are they extending the lease on life of fossil fuel, energy that is both wonderful and destructive?

One thing is certain. Nearly every well drilled in the United States is fracked. That’s one hundred wells a day, perhaps even a bit more, year-round. Whether you fear fracking or celebrate it, that’s a lot of holes in the ground.

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This book is about the ecosystem and inhabitants of the new United States, one that I sometimes call Frackistan. To trace its emergence, I will begin deep underground and follow the path of the hydrocarbon up and out of the rocks. Humans do not create crude oil and natural gas. We gather it from deep underground, where it is created. Any book about fossil fuels must begin with rocks. They are, literally and figuratively, the foundation of the entire story.

Before the rigs are assembled, a company acquires the right to drill a well. This often involves finding who owns the mineral rights. As was the case with my parents, it’s the landowners. But in some cases, the mineral rights have been severed from surface ownership. One person owns the land and someone else owns what’s underneath. This split can be problematic for all involved. The hunt for leases is a central element of the story of modern American energy.

Once leases are signed and wells drilled, the energy molecules enter a labyrinthine system of pipes and machinery built by the energy industry to extract the oil and gas. To begin this journey requires fracking, the violent act of cracking open rocks. Without this initial interaction between humans and rocks, there would be no resurgence of US energy production, no fracking, and no book. I will spend time with the people, beginning more than a century ago, who pioneered fracking. Moving upward, the story becomes about the wells themselves and the freshwater in aquifers near the surface.

Of course, the story doesn’t end at the surface. That is where the energy industry interacts with people: neighbors who live near the wells, government officials, and environmentalists. It is also here that chief executives and corporations set this activity in motion and interact with the Wall Street money machine, without which the wells never would have been drilled. But this is not the end of the journey, and this book will also trace the final step. Eventually the bulk of this energy is burned to create electricity or heat homes. This releases carbon dioxide, which heads upward into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. All along this path, the book will spend time with many of the inhabitants of this land, many of whom have struggled with the complexities of this new era and have arrived at surprising conclusions.

Why was Chesapeake so keen on north central Pennsylvania, in and around land my parents bought four decades ago? Why had a gaggle of landmen encamped at the Sullivan County Courthouse, rifling through real estate records untouched for decades to find who owned the mineral rights and bewildering overworked clerks who felt like the circus had come to town? The energy industry was chasing a giant deposit of sedimentary rock called the Marcellus Shale.

How did all this energy get here in the first place? Let’s begin at the beginning, or, at least, a long time ago. Most of the world’s continents have mountain ranges in the middle and great coastal plains on the edges. North America is different. Sixty million years ago, the broad collision of plates created the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east. In between was an enormous, shallow ocean called the mid-Cretaceous inland sea. It covered the area we now call the Great Plains, Texas, and even reached up into what became Pennsylvania. Zooplankton and other small aquatic organisms lived in that sea, fed by the sun and nutrient-rich waters. When they died, they settled on the seabed. In this vast marine environment, over millennia, these dead creatures created a thick layer of organic material. Eventually rocks buried this sediment, an overburden that created pressure and generated heat. The organisms slowly cooked, broke down, and turned into natural gas and oil. Petroleum geologists have a simple term for shale. It is “source rock”—the birthplace of oil and gas. If water is the most abundant ingredient in fracking, it is also the ecosystem that generated the best energy-laden shale rocks in the first place.

Shales formed all over the planet as landmasses shifted around, leaving these fossil-fuel generators scattered on every continent and underneath the oceans. But not all shales are the same. Ancient lakes created shales that tend to have waxy hydrocarbons that cling to the rocks and resist modern petroleum extraction. Elsewhere, such as in China, where forest and woody debris constituted the primary organic ingredients, the resulting shales are layered with silty rocks, like a kitchen sink full of haphazardly stacked dirty dishes. But in the great waterway that covered North America, the conditions were just right for generating large, contiguous shales—the kind of deposits that in the modern era attracted Chesapeake, because it could carve up entire counties into rectangular units, each with its own set of wells, and drill with confidence that ninety-nine of every one hundred would find natural gas trapped inside the rock. It was an ideal setup for a shale factory.

At the end of the Cretaceous period, the waters receded, and the North American continent dried out. Beneath the surface, it was chockful of source rocks. The first that caught the attention of Mitchell Energy petroleum engineers in the early 1980s was the Barnett Shale in Texas. Driving from the northernmost well to the most southern would take about three hours depending on how heavy traffic was passing through downtown Fort Worth. By mid-2012, rigs had drilled more than fifteen thousand Barnett wells, mostly in four or five counties close to Fort Worth. They will drill thousands more before energy companies can no longer get enough gas out of the ground to justify the cost. And even then, gas will continue to seep out of the rocks and into wells for years after the drilling rigs have moved on.

In a global context, the 5,000-square-mile Barnett Shale is on the small side. On the other side of the world, Russia’s Bazhenov Shale sprawls for about 850,000 square miles, from the frozen Kara Sea nearly all the way to the steppes of Kazakhstan. It is about the size of Texas and the Gulf of Mexico combined. Due to a lack of roads, it is impossible to drive from its northern to southern boundaries. By one estimate, long-gone rivers deposited eighteen trillion tons of organic material on the bottom of an ancient sea. That’s a lot of carbon and hydrogen molecules that ended up as organic-rich siliceous shale.

This is the source rock for Siberia’s giant oil fields—and the source of much of modern Russia’s wealth and political strength. The trillions of tons of dead organisms baked in the heat of the earth and transformed, slowly, into oil droplets. Oil was expelled from the shale and traveled upward until impassable rock canopies trapped it. This process formed large oil reservoirs, not in underground pools but inside permeable rocks riddled with tiny holes that allowed billions of barrels’ worth of the sought-after liquid to collect. In any given year, Russia is either the world’s largest, or second largest, oil producer. This is due primarily to oil that escaped the Bazhenov. This narrative is a quintessential story of fossil fuel: organic material is converted into oil and gas inside the shale, and then the hydrocarbons escape and travel upward. If something blocks the molecules’ path, they will fill up porous rocks like water in a sponge and create a petroleum reservoir.

Almost every one of the world’s giant hydrocarbon reservoirs has filled up with molecules that were formed in shale source rocks and then exited at such a glacial rate that a time-lapse camera set to snap a frame every decade would make for boring viewing. California’s thick molasses crude came from the Monterey Shale. In North Africa, the Silurian shales of Algeria and Libya have earned those countries membership in the oil-exporting cartel OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Farther east, the same shales generated gas trapped in carbonate rock cavities now known as the giant North Field between Iran and Qatar, the world’s largest gas reservoir. In northern Europe, the Kimmeridgian Shales led to the 1970s North Sea oil boom. The poetically named La Luna Shale sits under Venezuela. The Qusaiba “hot shale” is believed to be the source of Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar, the largest single collection of crude oil that has ever been—and likely will ever be—discovered. These are conventional reservoirs that until a few years ago were the exclusive target of the world’s petroleum industry. “Drill a well and drain the reservoir” was the oilman’s mandate. But a century of rising global thirst for oil and gas has begun to exhaust these warehouses. The market demanded more, and the industry responded. It knew the nursery rocks still contained oil and gas, but how much? And could it be coaxed out?

The answers that have emerged over the past decade have spurred the industry forward. Many shales leaked off most of their hydrocarbon wealth, but others kept theirs locked away. Some, such as the Bazhenov, are so large that they leaked off billions of barrels but still have billions more stored away. How many more Barnetts and Marcelluses—geological turnkeys—are there? We don’t know. Until recently, few bothered to ask. The conventional thinking was that shales did not hold much economic value, and funding to study these rocks was paltry. Juergen Schieber, a professor of geology at Indiana University and one of the few academics interested in shale before the energy industry discovered how to frack it, said the gaps of knowledge remind him of sixteenth-century maps with large empty spaces and “Here be dragons” notations.

Humans have been following a path toward the source rock for as long as history has been recorded. At first the only hydrocarbons used by our ancestors made the long trip from source rocks up to the surface, avoiding geologic dead ends. Humans reveled in the utility of this gift. They used it to caulk boats and cook food. In places, it thickened the earth and was shoveled out to bind bricks together. In ancient Mesopotamia, the builders of the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon likely used this oleaginous bitumen as mortar. Eventually humans dug deeper in search of more. In 1821 a shallow well in Fredonia, New York, produced enough natural gas to light streetlamps for the town. In Europe and Central Asia, oily dirt was mined and refined into kerosene to be burned for light. As demand for the fuel grew, tinkerers and then professional engineers invented ways to delve into the earth in search of larger, untapped reservoirs. Refiners distilled this crude oil into fuel. Before long, there was the Ford Mustang and men on the moon.

Civilization has been heading toward source rock for a few thousand years; toward the geological kitchen where heat and pressure turned organic material into hydrocarbons. Now, with fracking, there’s a lot more oil and gas to be extracted. But once we’ve reached the source rock, we’ve gone as far back as possible. You can’t devise technology to dig deeper and reach even further back in geologic time. Source rock is where plankton turned into hydrocarbons. There is no further back. This is it.

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