Skip to comments.Audacious wildcatters trigger fracking revolution
Posted on 11/03/2013 1:00:21 PM PST by Signalman
Capitalism, said economist Joseph Schumpeter seven decades ago, is a process of creative destruction. New inventions, new processes, new methods of organization lead to the creation of new profitable and efficient businesses and to the destruction of old ones unable to compete.
There are few accounts of the creative side of Schumpeters phrase more vivid than Fracking: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, a new book by Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman.
For years politicians, policy experts and corporate executives have tried to reshape American energy policy and development. They have operated on a series of assumptions seemingly based on experience and logic.
One is that oil and gas production in the United States was inevitably in decline. Another is that we can move toward energy independence by increasing use of renewables like wind and solar energy. Sign Up for the Michael Barone newsletter!
Those assumptions seem to have been refuted in the course of this young century by a group of audacious outsiders who have made great fortunes and in some cases lost them.
The Frackers tells their story. It tells the story of George Mitchell, son of a Greek immigrant, who was convinced that hydraulic fracturing fracking could bring in vast amounts of natural gas from the Barnett Shale in north Texas.
It tells the story of Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward, whose Chesapeake firm bought mineral leases atop vast shale deposits, becoming Americas No. 2 gas producer but overexpanding disastrously.
It tells the story of Harold Hamm, a sharecroppers son who rose from picking cotton to a $12 billion fortune by prying oil out of the Bakken shale of North Dakota.
And it tells the story of Charif Souki, Lebanese immigrant and proprietor of the Los Angeles restaurant where Nicole Simpson ate and Ronald Goldman served their last meals, who charmed others into financing a liquid natural gas export terminal in Louisiana.
This is mostly a story of private enterprise in action. Government studies provided some early support for fracking, but government energy experts lagged far behind these wildcatters in appreciating the potential for extracting gas and oil from shale.
Its also worth noting that these men were not motivated simply by greed. Mitchell had a vision that America could liberate itself from dependence on foreign energy, and had the satisfaction of seeing the nation on the road there when he died last summer at 94.
McClendon and Ward preached that shale gas could provide a clean alternative to coal and oil, an essential interim step to developing renewables competitive in price.
Each of these men could have paused at some point in their careers and retired with enough wealth to live in luxury, contribute generously to others and leave large inheritances behind.
Instead they soared ahead, taking enormous risks, borrowing enormous sums. I suspect that most readers will feel queasy, as I did, reading of the enormous debt they carried at times and the breathtaking chances they took.
Nor did everything work well for them. In 2012, McClendon and Ward were both forced out of the firms they headed because of their insatiable desire to buy ever more mineral leases. Hamm faces loss of half his net worth in divorce.
The fracking revolution has had the effect not only of swelling the domestic supply, but of slashing the domestic price. Bad news for McClendon and Ward, but good news for Souki, who is retrofitting his terminal to export rather than import liquefied natural gas.
The Frackers reminds me of the enormous risks taken by John D. Rockefeller, whose kerosene replaced whale oil for lighting (and saved those wondrous mammals from slaughter), and the auto pioneers of Detroit.
It reminds me also that some but not all of them reaped great rewards. Henry Ford became a billionaire. W.C. Durant, the founder of General Motors, died broke.
Public policymakers tend to assume a static economic world that responds incrementally to incentives, including changes in policy.
The Frackers shows an explosive and highly unpredictable world where imagination, perseverance, skill and a necessary ingredient luck can transform a nation from whale oil to kerosene, horse and buggy to car, energy importer to energy exporter.
Creative destruction can render public policies irrelevant, as seems to be the case with several decades of conventional wisdom energy policy. It reminds us that people with ingenuity and daring can reshape the world in ways few can imagine.
No guts, no glory.
I remain convinced that Barone is one of the smartest guys (actually smart, not Obama-liberal-smart) on the planet. It is impossible to extrapolate future conditions from past trends in the face of disruptive technology. Otherwise who would imagine that by 2013 only 1/4 of homes would have landline phones vs. 20 years ago?
I haven’t read the book, but the review is excellent. And it shows why free enterprise needs to be free. Free enterprise allows creative destruction, which keeps the economy humming and growing. Big government allows restrictive destruction, and kills any economy it is set loose on.
There is still some creative destruction, but within a system that is becoming over all less creative and more bureaucratic.
If there is a profit to be made, somebody will find a way.
I think what you’re describing is normal human behavior. The rise of bureaucracies, including the Fed which is a monetary bureaucracy, is an attempt to lower variances. We know that the attempt to do so, simply is capping the volcano. Eventually, it will blow.
Human beings love consistency and routine overall, but there is a subset that thrive on risk and change and chaos. So the two are in conflict. If you lower the frequency or work to temper it, you’re bound to misdial, get it wrong and in the wrong direction - communism, socialism, fascism - or wildly the opposite democracy and anarchy which both lead to dictatorships. Letting the frequency fluctuate naturally serves the second group of entrepreneurs, but creates huge disruptions in society.
We have a republic as the best political model to manage (you cannot control complex systems) the economic results of change and innovation. How do you set the dial correctly in a republic? How do you keep it in balance?
I believe our Constitution did that until the latter half of the 19th century. Progressivism rose up as cities grew and concentrated the losers into political divisions. The existing “winners” want stability as well and are attracted to the appearance of control via progressivism.
Government schools manage the classes/ranks of the hoi polloi creating tracks for them to live their lives. This satisfies the egotists among the losers who become bureaucrats able to “control” the entrepreneurial disruptors and tell them “no”. The rest of the government grew during a government created/generated crisis - the Great Depression.
FDR and his “Brain Trust” thought they could control the chaos. Toss in 40 years of progressive control of the media and the Congress and you get us to just past Johnson’s Great Society and Jimmy Carter. I believe we’re on the other side now, moving back toward the Constitution. I’m hopeful.
The Mommy Party has failed, but continues to attract. Can the Daddy Party thread the needle, hold the Congress for a generation or two and get us back to the Gilded Age (Twain’s epithet for what really was a great time of innovation and prosperity for America, riddled with a lot of disruption, but an enormous amount of liberty)?
Keep in mind that most of our unemployment and wage stagnation is driven by regulatory burdens place on people in urban and heavily urban counties by bureaucrats and politicians, more interested in control, than liberty. If the Feds, lead by a liberty loving POTUS, were to turn the big guns of the Commerce Clause against those ramparts, they’d fall fairly quickly.
By what right does a local body stop an individual food vendor? What’s the rationale? Does it violate Due Process? I think most local zoning, licensing and permitting laws do.
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