Was Federal Government Support Critical to the Shale Gas Breakthrough?

Michael Giberson

In the State of the Union address, President Obama invoked a little federal government research history and then jumped to the kind of logical non sequitur so common to those who see the world through politically-colored glasses:

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of thirty years, 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.

Reminds me of the old saying, “Success has many fathers.” It is true that the federal government supported research into technologies used to extract gas from shale, but it is a politician’s self-serving leap to then suggest it means “Government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

The President’s comment echoes a claim advanced by the Breakthrough Institute last month (as they were happy to point out after the speech), namely that credit for the shale gas boom ought to go to the federal government. I commented on the Breakthrough Institute’s claim in December (see here and here), and the Master Resource blog has republished the first of those posts this morning.

If the federal government were responsible for the shale gas boom, wouldn’t we have expected to see shale gas resources on federal government land developed before privately-owned resources were explored? Instead what we have is the President, in the same State of the Union speech, announcing disclosure requirements for companies that want to use hydraulic fracturing on federal lands – meaning, given the way policy gets developed, that sometime soon a regulatory proposal on the issue will be initiated and in several months, or maybe a year or two, a rule will be in place.

There is nothing wrong with the checks and balances in the policy making process, even though they cause the federal government to sometimes move at a glacial pace. But anyone with the least familiarity with running a business will know that this isn’t the way breakthroughs get made in the private sector.

I certainly would recommend the interested reader check out the Breakthrough Institute’s work on the issue. In addition to the Washington Post op-ed linked above, on their blog they have a summary of their message, interviews with former Mitchell Energy geologist Dan Steward and Penn State University geologist and fracking expert Terry Englander, and other supporting information. The basic reporting presented is quite good. Just be ready to form your own conclusions.



One thought on “Was Federal Government Support Critical to the Shale Gas Breakthrough?

  1. I will not bother to wait for the usual government cheerleaders to remember to claim this same credit and try to correct the news stories when, some years down the road, we collectively decide that fracking is bad and/or shale energy is worse for global warming. I won’t wait because those same people will claim that it shows, once again, the dangers of a free market and the answer is more policy (and taxes, and regulation, and high risk investment, etc.).

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