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A (Long) History of Federal Investment in Fracking Technology

federal funds for natural gas fracking technologyWith the battle over new federal natural gas drilling regulations is heating up, now is a good time to recall the pivotal role that federal dollars have played in developing the drilling method called fracking. Short for hydraulic fracturing, the practice has been linked in recent years to significant public health and environmental problems including air pollution, water contamination and even earthquakes, yet it has been largely exempt from regulation on a national level.

Fracking and federal funds

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of The Breakthrough Institute make a detailed case for the role of federal funds in fracking technology, in a recent article at, the online magazine of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

They acknowledge that fracking, which involves shooting liquid into rock at high pressure, was  pioneered by the private sector beginning in the 19th century. However, they provide a research history showing that these relatively primitive operations have little to do with the modern commercial-scale fracking technology developed later in the 20th century, which is based on foundational research conducted by government scientists.

They back up their case with examples of specific research projects (see the Breakthrough blog for more details), and they also unearth direct pleas from the oil and gas industry for federal investment in research leading to improved fracking technology.

Drilling and the geothermal connection

In a separate but related line of research, the high efficiency drill bits commonly used by the oil and gas industry today were initially developed about 30 years ago at Sandia National Laboratory. The technology was originally intended for the geothermal industry, which deals with much more difficult rock formations than are typical for oil and gas drilling.

At the time, the geothermal industry wasn’t ready to invest in the new technology but the oil and gas industry has enthusiastically embraced it ever since.

Things have come full circle now that the geothermal industry is beginning to gather steam. Sandia researchers are currently working with a private company in partnership with the U.S. Navy, tweaking the technology a bit further to enable cost-effective geothermal drilling (if you’re wondering about that Navy connection, the U.S. military has vast geothermal potential at many of its facilities and the Navy has been operating a geothermal plant at its China Lake research base since the 1980’s).

A stronger case for federal clean tech funding

The Breakthrough article demonstrates how federal research dollars have played a role in an energy boom that is proving to be highly profitable for the private sector.  That in turn makes a good argument for continued federal investment in foundational energy research in general, whether for fossil fuel recovery or new clean tech.

However strong the evidence for Breakthrough’s case, it appears that a counter-effort is afoot (round up the usual suspects!). In a followup article that appeared  in just last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) asserts that only private sector innovation can claim credit for the current boom.

According to an article in The Hill, Upton’s Energy and Commerce Committee is also working on “an exhaustive review of the limits of government-sponsored energy production.”

In a similar vein, last week saw the debut of good-sized television ad buy from American Crossroads, which backs Upton’s underlying pitch for private sector credit by claiming that all of the current increase in energy production can be accounted for by drilling on private land, not on federal lands.

That’s certainly not the last word on the subject, so count on things to heat up as we get closer to the November elections.

Image: Some rights reserved by stevendepolo.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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