In one sense, the analysts who forecast that “peak oil”—i.e., the point at which the rate of global petroleum extraction will begin to decline—would be reached over the last few years were correct. The planet is running short of the easy stuff, where you stick a drill in the ground and crude comes bubbling to the surface. The great oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Mexico have begun to dwindle; one result has been a rising price for energy.
We could, as a civilization, have taken that dwindling supply and rising price as a signal to convert to sun, wind, and other noncarbon forms of energy—it would have made eminent sense, most of all because it would have aided in the fight against global warming, the most difficult challenge the planet faces. Instead, we’ve taken it as a signal to scour the world for more hydrocarbons. And it turns out that they’re there—vast quantities of coal and oil and gas, buried deep or trapped in tight rock formations or mixed with other minerals.
Getting at them requires ripping apart the earth: for instance, by heating up the ground so that the oil in the tar sands formation of Canada can flow to the surface. Or by tearing holes in the crust a mile beneath the surface of the sea, as BP was doing in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon well exploded. Or by literally removing mountaintops to get at coal, as has become commonplace across the southern Appalachians.
Or, in the case of the books under review, by “fracking” the subsurface geology in order to make natural gas flow through new cracks. The word is short for “hydraulic fracturing” and in the words of Seamus McGraw, it works like this: having drilled a hole perhaps a mile deep, and then a horizontal branch perhaps half a mile in length, you send down
a kind of subterranean pipe bomb, a small package of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives. The package is detonated, and the shrapnel pierces the bore hole, opening up small perforations in the pipe. They then pump up to 7 million gallons of a substance known as slick water to fracture the shale and release the gas. It blasts through those perforations in the pipe into the shale at such force—more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch—that it shatters the shale for a few yards on either side of the pipe, allowing the gas embedded in it to rise under its own pressure and escape.
This new technique allowed the industry to exploit terrain that it had previously considered impenetrable. It was used first in the late 1990s in what’s called the Barnett Shale in Texas, and is also being widely…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.