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Matt Smith

Matt Smith

Taking a voyage across the world of energy with ClipperData’s Director of Commodity Research. Follow on Twitter @ClipperData, @mattvsmith01

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Chips and Salsa with Russell Gold

Chips and Salsa with Russell Gold

Russell Gold is absolutely marvelous. Not only has he spent over a decade as an intrepid energy reporter at the Wall Street Journal, but he has written a book, ‘The Boom‘, which is the quintessential history of the US fracking revolution.

The book provides a fair and balanced view on how hydraulic fracturing has kick-started the US energy boom, and I am so keen to spread the word about it that I have five copies to give away. But before that, here is an interview with the mighty Russell Gold himself, providing some candid and compelling insights. Enjoy!

1)  You got to interview a number of super-interesting people in the research for your book; who was the most informative and/or intriguing?

Spending an overcast day driving around with Nick Steinsberger was an unforgettable experience. We visited the well where in 1998 he pulled off the world’s first modern frack job – successfully completing a Barnett Shale well. He didn’t realize, at the time or even in the intervening years, how much his work would change the world. It goes to show that not all global events resonate in the moment. Sometimes it takes years for their true importance to be manifest.

2)  My favorite line of the book was ‘I don’t fear fracking. I fear carbon.’ Do you think that ultimately the fracking boom in the US may delay a lower carbon future?

I think it already is delaying a lower carbon future. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down sharply while the economy has grown. That’s a remarkable feat. We can have cheap energy if we don’t care about emissions and we can lower emissions if price isn’t an issue. The trick is to lower emissions while keeping control of costs. Fracking has pulled that off.

3)  Was it an anti-climax to meet George Mitchell (the ‘Godfather’ of fracking) and not get any answers to the questions you had? (I got the feeling it was like meeting George Lucas and him refusing to talk about Star Wars). Or was it just a great experience to meet him?

I knew what I was getting into. I had read two oral histories of his company and a recent op-ed he helped pen. His son, Todd, told me that his father had good days and bad days.

Still, I wanted to hear more from him. I felt like the guy in the cartoon who clambers up a mountain to the guru and gets a cryptic answer. But that’s okay. One of the fallacies I seen most writing about energy is that people want easy black and white answers. They want simple answers to tough questions. I was asking George Mitchell a tough question and he was near the end of his life. Why was I expecting a satisfying answer?

4)  Do you think any other country will be able to replicate the success of the US fracking boom? If so, where…if not, why?

Many have tried, but few have succeeded. The US has drilled so many more wells than anyone else and has such a richer understanding of its geology. It has more equipment (rigs, pressure pumps, wire lines) and people. But most importantly, it has private ownership of mineral rights. This has turned out to be such a critical factor. Outside the US, there is generally public ownership of mineral rights. States have struggled to find incentives to get local residents to accept fracking.

I think there will eventually be sizable fracking industries in other countries (my money is on Argentina and China) but it will take time to overcome the obstacles.

5)  I get the impression that the focus on fossil fuels in your day job is at odds with a more sustainable tilt to your home life  – both growing up and now. Is that fair, and if so, how do you find a balance?

No, I don’t think that is fair. I report and write about energy. I try to listen to the people involved and divorce my feelings. After 20+ years of being a working journalist, it isn’t hard anymore. I don’t have solar panels on my roof (although I am considering it) and I don’t drive a hybrid (too expensive.) But I did help my son on a science project about how driving behavior (driving conservatively versus aggressively) influences gas mileage.

I see the strengths and flaws of both the energy industry and the environmentalists. No one has a monopoly on wisdom.

6)  After spending more than a decade following the development of the fracking story, do feel you less or more supportive of it?

Whether we look back in regret or relief about this energy boom depends on how well handle ourselves right now. Is the industry doing a good job building wells and fixing methane leaks? Are regulators actively protecting communities? Are communities organizing to keep a close watch on their energy neighbors? The jury is still out.


7)  Isn’t it impossible not to admire Aubrey McClendon, despite some of his less-than-honorable actions?

I have great admiration for Aubrey McClendon and what he accomplished. He was a visionary. When all is said and done, I expect him to be regarded one of the more fascinating and complex early 21st century characters in the American story.

8)  What is next on your agenda? Do you have plans to write another book or is it time to hang out with the family?

I am back to reporting on energy for the Wall Street Journal and am considering another book. Stay tuned.

By Matt Smith of Energy Burrito

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