Backyard Energy

A critical aspect of the pervasiveness of hydraulic fracturing is that the production of oil and gas directly affects the lives of millions of Americans.  Until recently, the business of finding and extracting oil and gas largely was conducted out of sight and out of mind for the vast majority of Americans.  Today, the hunt for these hydrocarbons is being played out in people’s backyards.  Will the current production rates of fracked oil and gas be continued if the lives of those affected are worse for the experience?

That’s the key underlying question in Russell Gold’s new book, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World.  Consider these assessments from Gold, Senior Energy Reporter for the Wall Street Journal:

  • More than 100,000 wells have been fracked in the U.S.
  • More than 15,000,000 Americans live within a mile of a well that has been fracked in just the past several years
  • “Living near a well under construction isn’t easy. Traffic, noise, and foul air are constant and legitimate complaints.”
  • Concludes Gold:  “It is entirely possible for the energy industry to develop oil and gas from shale safely, but not while simultaneously more than doubling the number of wells it drills in a decade.”

Gold does not present any public opinion data on those for and against hydraulic fracturing but he does reference initiatives by some states and municipalities to more closely regulate well drilling and production.   This is a significant issue for the industry, which has invested extensively in leases for shale properties, and for continued ample supplies of American energy and low cost natural gas.   In addition to heavy truck traffic and noise, concerns over fracking include methane in water wells, overall water quality and quality of life, and equitable compensation for Native Americans and other landowners.    

 As I wrote in an Op-Ed piece published by the Houston Business Journal in October 2012, “America’s energy future is linked to corporate America’s ability to address these concerns satisfactorily so as to earn a license to build and operate energy infrastructure.”

Progress toward securing this license hinges on greater openness and trust. Signs of progress are evident in the actions of companies like Baker Hughes, which recently committed to disclose fully the make-up of its fracking fluids.  Also, Marathon Oil Corporation’s President and CEO, Lee Tillman, recognizes the importance of dialogue as a trust-building measure, telling an industry audience in North Dakota two weeks ago:  “We must talk about what we’re doing in a meaningful, credible way. Often. To our friends and supporters, but also to our skeptics and opponents.” 

But the challenge is daunting.   As former Shell Oil President John Hofmeister wrote in his 2010 book Why We Hate the Oil Companies:  “Until the individual (oil and gas) companies move their public relations models from least amount of information necessary to most amount of information possible, the oil industry will continue to … be the recipient of harsh public policies and sustained criticism as a result.” 

As if to drive home the point personally about the closer proximity of energy production to the lives of Americans, I recently had a conversation with a sister who lives in southeast Michigan. We were wrapping up our conversation when she stopped herself in mid-sentence to say, “Oh, you’ll be interested in this.  We’ve been asked by an oil company to access our land to conduct testing.  What do you think?” 

“Holy cow,” was my unspoken reaction.  Energy production has become a backyard business.