Waterless fracking?

Lynne Kiesling

Pale Rider is one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies. One of its central themes revolves around classic property rights concepts in a community of miners that includes a number of small pan miners and a family that has built a larger, hydraulic mining operation that essentially uses pressurized water to blast rock hillsides apart and release the valuable gold therein. This hydraulic mining harms the mining potential of the downstream pan miners, reducing the value of their property. It’s a vivid example of property rights and Coase’s point about the reciprocal nature of costs when the actions of community members are interdependent. Of course, as director Eastwood heightened the dramatic conflict by making the hydraulic mining family greedy and mendacious, but that’s not necessary for there to be an underlying property rights conflict.

Pale Rider came to my mind yesterday afternoon, when I happened on an interview with Daniel Yergin on Fox Business. The interviewer asked him about fracking as a “new” technology and the US prospects for energy independence (oh, how I wish people would just get over that), and he pointed out that fracking is being used both for natural gas and for “tight oil” (which all KP readers know thanks to Mike, but I think a lot of people don’t). But Yergin also corrected her assertion that fracking is a new technology, mentioning very briefly that this technique in one form or another has existed for a long time. Fracking as we know it has been around for decades, but almost as soon as Evangelista Torricelli discovered atmospheric pressure and the vacuum in 1643, people started exploring using pressurized fluids to do work that they and their animals could not. In the 19th century that included hydraulic mining to get at subsurface mineral deposits.

Yergin’s remark triggered my Pale Rider memory, and the economic parallels between the issues in using hydraulic mining in Pale Rider and hydraulic fracturing today are strong — conflicts over the use of resources with ill-defined property rights, environmental impact, changes in potential profitability of using resources in different ways, etc. In particular, conflicts arise about the quantity of water used and water quality post-fracking. Again, thanks to Mike I think we understand those issues well.

I’ve been wondering about the next step in the chain of Coasian logic: if property rights and legal liability are defined so that energy companies are liable for harms they create (water scarcity or contamination), does that induce harm-reducing innovation? In the abstract, theory suggests that such innovations would fall into the two categories, waterless fracking and water remediation and purification.

And it is happening, although in its infancy and still more expensive than using water. Consider this Forbes article from Erica Gies about innovations in waterless fracking. The relative value of such innovations is going to be highest in places like Texas, as she observes:

Water shortages and conflicts are on the rise due to increasing population and climate change–caused fluctuations in precipitation that are making drought more frequent and severe in some places.

One of those places is Texas, where this summer’s mega-drought invoked comparisons with the 1930s Dust Bowl, as ranchers sold their emaciated animals for a song and agricultural losses soared to more than $5 billion.

As a result, gas industry projects in Texas had to scale back, as energy producers scrambled to find sufficient water.

She then points to a couple of different approaches being developed — liquified (again note the role of atmospheric pressure!) propane gel injected instead of water and which may be reusable, and a vapor “foam” that may reduce water use by 95 percent. I think her conclusion accurately captures the tradeoffs involved, and the role that innovation can play in reducing harms from fracking:

These technologies are in their infancy, and many questions about efficacy, impacts, and cost remain to be answered before they could move into widespread use. And of course, reducing water consumption does not mitigate concerns about prolonging our reliance on fossil fuels or the inherently ugly nature of extractive industry, especially for local neighbors.

But for the gas companies, although such technologies are currently more expensive than water, they offer the promise of reducing myriad headaches and expenses, including costs for hauling water and sand, repairing roads damaged by heavy truck use, and managing water pollution, including “produced” water disposal.

Gies wrote earlier in the year about innovations in water cleaning and business opportunities for wastewater treatment companies, providing concise background on the use of water in fracking. I also read an article last week (that I can’t locate now) about the potential to use technologies developed for oil spill cleanup to clean fracking water. Innovation changes some of the tradeoffs involved in fracking.

Does a public good argument justify subsidizing private energy production?

Michael Giberson

Yesterday I disputed the analysis by which the Breakthough Institute wanted to claim credit on behalf of the federal government for the shale gas boom; today I dispute their claimed broader implications for federal energy R&D policy.

Late in their op-ed, the Breakthrough folks shift emphasis from a narrow drilling technology story to a broader examination of energy R&D policy:

Giving the federal government credit where it is due takes nothing away from Mitchell, who was determined and tenacious. But the lesson of the shale gas revolution is that we should not be so quick to judge government investments in energy technology. Between 1978 and 2007, the Energy Department spent $24 billion on fossil energy research. Billions more were spent through the Gas Research Institute and non-conventional gas tax credits. Those investments were widely panned as a failure during the ’80s and early ’90s, when gas was plentiful and cheap.

Whatever one thinks about shale gas today — we worry about its environmental consequences — there’s no denying the extraordinary economic return on taxpayer investments.

This last point is interesting, but undeveloped in the article. If one were to calculate the “economic return on taxpayer investments,” would one have to conclude they were extraordinary?

The essay ultimately wants to argue against claims that the Solyndra episode proves governments can’t pick winners and the shale gas boom proves private enterprise can. Defenders of subsidies for solar power projects claim critics are too focused on a single failure, Solyndra, when reasonably critics should be assessing the overall portfolio of projects supported. It is a fair observation, but it may turn against their conclusion. If we are to consider the return on “taxpayer investments” in energy R&D, we’d reasonably need to survey the full portfolio of energy technology concepts funded by the federal government. We’d have to count the winners and losers both, based on the best current understanding, and again (as yesterday) we’d want to work out some idea of what would have happened in the energy technology space without federal government intervention. Further, we wouldn’t just worry about the environmental consequences, we’d have to compute some estimate of the costs and include it in the analysis.

The article goes nowhere close to presenting the relevant case. Near the end of the article they claim federal credit for “nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines — pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II.” Hmmm, notice they don’t mention the other big selectively-cited-by-critics failure: the Carter-era launch of an$88 billion effort to make oil from coal. Like the Solyndra and Synfuels Corp. complainers, the Breakthrough Institute wants to draw policy implications for an uncertain future based on a selective invocation of history.

It is further a kind of mistake to invoke Solyndra in an essay all about energy R&D policy. Much recent taxpayer-extracted support for energy shows up in the production tax credit, the investment tax credits, the Section 1603 Treasury grants and miscellaneous other subsidies that are directed to help promote the fortunes of companies building renewable power components or producing power via renewable sources. While some of these companies are pursuing technological developments, these subsidies are not tied to research in any substantial way and yield very little in the way of publicly available research results. Try gathering detailed data on production from a wind farm or solar power plant benefiting from millions of dollars in taxpayer-supported subsidies – their lawyers will likely tell you it is commercially-sensitive information and not publicly available. And by the way it isn’t just renewable energy, the lawyers for subsidized production from low-output oil and gas wells will likely say the same thing.

There is a respectable public good argument that can be made in support of subsidizing at least some research. The “extraordinary economic return” that the Breakthrough Institute wants to claim on behalf of government subsidized research into oil and gas drilling technology is this kind of an argument. If Breakthrough wants to drag Solyndra and the full range of energy production subsidies into this argument, an economist looking for a respectable public good argument has got to ask: where is the public good in subsidizing private energy production from projects that hide publicly useful information from public review?

Did the federal government invent the shale gas boom?

Michael Giberson

In the Washington Post the folks at the Breakthrough Institute try to learn us some history about the shale gas boom. Maybe you think the shale gas boom was some big surprise suddenly made real after the decades-long work of a hard-headed oil and gas guy – George Mitchell – willing to spend millions of dollars on the crazy idea that hydrocarbons stuck in a rock could be produced economically, once the right mix of technologies could be brought to bear.

Wrong, says the Breakthrough Institute, credit the shale gas boom to the federal government.

They have their reasons:

  • “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.”
  • “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 ….”
  • “Mitchell’s success depended on a revolution in monitoring and mapping technologies driven largely by government labs.”
  • 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 …. In 1976, two government engineers … patented an early-stage directional drilling technology that became the precursor to horizontal drilling.”
  • “A joint venture between the Energy Department and industry drilled the first horizontal Devonian shale well….

There are a few more similar points. The article pursues a larger goal – some statement concerning current energy policy support – but today I just want to consider how to assess the credit for technological advancement. (See tomorrow for part II.)

A fair analysis of credit and blame requires more than just a recounting of history, such as provided in the article, we need also to construct a counterfactual history for comparison. Should we reasonably believe that but-for the energy technology programs of the Department of Energy, we’d be unable to produce natural gas from shale? It would be difficult to do this analysis well, and the authors don’t attempt it here, but a full assessment calls for it.

A sketch of technology developments may be helpful. Note that fracturing as a well-stimulation technology started in Pennsylvania in the early 1860s. A few clever folk discovered dropping gunpowder down a well, later liquid nitroglycerin,  often brought marvelous returns. Edward A. L. Roberts submitted a patent application for the process in 1864. Hydraulic fracturing technology was first developed by Standard Oil (Indiana) in the late 1940s.  In the 1960s, Project Gasbuggy had the federal government collaborating with the oil and gas industry to test a nuclear-weapon based fracturing technology on federal land in New Mexico. The Breakthrough Institute’s story picks up in the 1970s, but what the backstory reveals is a history of efforts to develop fracturing technology, funded privately in some cases and publicly in others. Department of Energy involvement may have shaped the direction of research, but I suspect its pool of research funds was merely convenient to technological advancement and not necessary. (More recently, GasFrac Energy Services of Alberta has pioneered a propane-based fracturing technology.)

Directional drilling, a precursor to horizontal drilling, first became practiced in the industry in the 1920s – well before “two government engineers … patented an early-stage directional drilling technology” in 1976. (See “Slanted Oil Wells,” published in Popular Science magazine in 1931.) As with hydraulic fracturing,  the industry found the technology quite useful in application and companies pursued technological advancements. Taxpayer funding may have been convenient support for the oil and gas industry, government research involvement may have shaped the direction of directional-drilling research, but the industry would have pursued the technology in any case.

So possibly the federal government’s involvement advanced by a few years the technologies that were finally blended in a sufficiently promising mix by George Mitchell. Even if we grant as much, it isn’t the whole of the shale gas boom that federal involvement gains credit for, just the added value that comes from shifting shale gas production forward by a few years. Of course possibly the whole of the federal government’s involvement in the industry – tax policies, regulatory policies, antitrust policies, federal lands policy, and so on – could reasonably be counted as delaying technological advancement when compared against what would have happened under some more rational regime.

Admittedly, they were just writing an op-ed and I’m complaining that they didn’t do a dissertation’s worth of work to support it. Maybe my complaints are a little unfair.

Okay, here is an offer: I’ll admit my complaints are unfair if they admit that their analysis was insufficient to justify their conclusions.

Y’all have a happy holiday!

Michael Giberson

The KP Texas office is alive and functional, I am relieved to discover, just recently emerged from the end of semester rush and not yet enveloped in the holiday rush. So I’ll try to rediscover my internet legs, re-raise the Jolly Blogger flag, and set sail in search of curious, erroneous, surprising or provoking energy policy and/or economics stories.

Yo-ho-ho and happy holidays to all!

David Henderson on crony capitalism

The KP Chicago contingent is still on vacation, barely recovered from the end-of-term rush and grading, and the KP Texas contingent is still head-down-pen-moving over the aforementioned grading; thus the relative calm here.

In the interim, I cannot recommend highly enough David Henderson’s recounting of his talk at Occupy Monterey. David’s notes contain substantive and rhetorically valuable arguments defining crony capitalism, differentiating it from true market exchange, and debunking the history of the “robber barons”. He sets a great example for teaching, for persuasion, and for open-minded conversation to discover where people who disagree may find common ground. Thank you, David; I am looking forward to part 2.

Happy birthday, Bill of Rights; you will be missed

Yesterday was the anniversary of the original signing of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Congress commemorated that birthday by passing the National Defense Authorization Act, which still leaves interpretive room for detention of U.S. citizens without due process even after the word smithing that left President Obama the executive power he wants, thus neutering the hoped-for veto. Congress also moved forward with the Stop Online Piracy Act, an abomination of Internet censoring, regulation, and monitoring.

In combination these two laws gut the already-trimmed Bill of Rights; all of the amendments have been under threat since its birth, the 9th and 10th have been made moribund through unchecked government action, and the 4th is also pretty much gone.

Yes, I think the members of Congress who voted for NDAA have violated their oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution. No, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that we are looking at the slide toward fascism unless we take affirmative action to defend our rights that the Bill of Rights was supposed to protect (although in hindsight perhaps enumerating them was a bad idea).

Also consider this: I have argued for the past year that the policies of the TSA and the way they treat airline passengers conditions us for the loss of liberty. If you doubt this, I suggest you read up on the Stanford prison experiment and Milgram’s work on authority and power. Look at these actions together, and notice the importance of a docile, accepting public to allow such liberty-destroying laws to pass. If we are docile in the face of authority operating under the false flag of terrorist threat and providing the pretense of security, we can be controlled in other ways. I see NDAA and SOPA as logical consequences in this progression.

Unless we stand up and defend ourselves from our government. Because we are moving toward a world in which a private citizen whose primary civic interest is liberty, toleration, and peace can be detained without warrant for saying that. That scares me, and it should scare you too.

“Market failure”: you keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Lynne Kiesling

Steve Horwitz’s column in The Freeman today is a great explication of why the phrase “market failure” is so problematic, and so often misused and abused in public policy analysis when employed to criticize market outcomes. Steve does a good job of explaining the origins of the phrase in the standard textbook case of “perfect competition”: in equilibrium that simple benchmark model, resources are allocated to their highest-valued use, all Pareto-improving trades have occurred, and while firms have earned inframarginal profit, the marginal profit at the equilibrium level of output is zero. More simply, all gains from trade have been exploited and no one has left any money on the table. Thus, the argument goes, in applying that model to reality when we see outcomes that deviate from that and do have misallocation or some unrealized gains from trade, the logical conclusion is that the market has failed to enable agents to achieve that optimal outcome.

Steve highlights two reasons why this interpretation is incorrect; the first reason is a misunderstanding of the nature of competition and the market process as it operates in real conditions of the knowledge problem, imperfect foresight, differentiated products, small numbers of agents, etc. People making the above critique of markets expect a threshold of unrealistic perfection, and consequently make an unfair comparison of a simplified benchmark model with the complications and nuances of a real-world application. I encounter this argument all the time in electricity regulation, which is predicated precisely on this type of false, over-simplified argument, and has a century’s worth of regulatory institutions built upon the false presumption that achieving such a static outcome in reality is possible.

One thing I particularly like about Steve’s argument is how he points out that these cognitive-epistemological characteristics of the real world are features, not bugs, with respect to how market processes create value and gains from trade:

… these sorts of imperfections (a better term than “failure”) are not only part and parcel of real markets; they also are what drive entrepreneurship and competition to find ways to improve outcomes.  In other words, what markets do best is enable people to spot imperfections and attempt to improve on them, even as those attempts at improvement (whether successful or not) lead to new imperfections.  Once we realize that people aren’t fully informed, that we don’t know what the ideal product should look like, and that we don’t know what the optimal firm size is, we understand that these deviations from the ideal are not failures but opportunities.  The effort to improve market outcomes is the entrepreneurship that lies at the heart of the competitive market.

Thus the value of markets is not that they will achieve perfection, but that they have endogenous processes of discovery that enable people to correct the market’s imperfections.  Just as it’s the very friction of the soles of our shoes on the floor that enable us to walk, it is the imperfections of the market that encourage us to find the new and better ways to do things.

He then counters a second aspect of the “market failure” argument: this argument is typically coupled with a recommendation for some form of government intervention or regulation to “correct” the perceived failure. But if market processes in realistic contexts have imperfections, don’t government intervention and regulation have imperfections too? The relevant comparison is between the results of market institutions and government institutions in realistic contexts, not in simplified blackboard theory.

I would add a third point to this analysis. Often when I encounter the “market failure” argument I make a quick riposte of “markets don’t fail, they fail to exist”, which is the Coase/transactions cost response. Transactions costs interfere with the ability of parties to find mutually beneficial trades, thus impeding optimal resource allocation and the creation of maximum gains from trade. Transactions costs lead to missing markets, as in the case of environmental pollution and other common-pool resource situations. This driver of so-called “market failure” complements Steve’s process-oriented argument and reinforces his points … and it implies that one high-priority objective of public policy should be to reduce transactions costs, not to impose regulations that are intended to “correct” market failures but have little realistic hope of doing so effectively.

[Thanks to Aeon Skoble for the Princess Bride hook I used in the title.]