The problem is, it isn’t true.
The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.
This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.
While Mitchell did face skepticism from industry, and from many of his employees, he overcame the myriad obstacles to cheap shale gas extraction with help from technologies developed with taxpayer money.
Slick-water fracking, the technology that Mitchell used to crack the shale gas code, was adapted from massive hydraulic fracturing, a technology first demonstrated by the Energy Department in 1977. Over the next two decades, Mitchell and others, with government support, tinkered with the technology, exploring ways to use fewer chemicals and more water, which substantially reduced the cost of extraction.
Mitchell learned of shale’s potential from the Eastern Gas Shales Project, a partnership begun in 1976 between the Energy Department’s Morgantown Energy Research Center and dozens of companies and universities that sought to demonstrate natural gas recovery in shale formations and to map and test core samples from unconventional natural gas deposits. Starting in 1981, Mitchell’s geologists drew heavily on that research to guide their explorations.
Mitchell’s success depended on a revolution in monitoring and mapping technologies driven largely by government labs. The new technologies allowed geologists to more precisely map and understand shale formations. In 1991, Mitchell asked the publicly funded Gas Research Institute, then funded by a tax on gas production, and the Energy Department for help. Sandia National Labs provided Mitchell with many critical microseismic tools. Mitchell also benefited from 3-D imaging, which the Energy Department had long supported.
The third critical technology was horizontal drilling and well installation, a breakthrough that captured much more shale gas than conventional vertical wells had. The government had supported innovative drilling methods since the ’70s; in 1976, two government engineers, Joseph Pasini III and William K. Overby Jr., patented an early-stage directional drilling technology that became the precursor to horizontal drilling. A decade later, a joint venture between the Energy Department and industry drilled the first horizontal Devonian shale well, which allowed gas to be extracted from multiple fractures and wells.