The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight over Fracking, and the Future of Energy
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—and those to come—the reality of climate change’s devastating impacts is undeniable. There is a growing sense that something should be done, but there is still a great distance between recognition and action. Think of yourself, sitting in your parked car with the engine idling, while you check your smartphone for news about the hurricanes. You are part of the problem. That is to say, there is a gaping chasm between our recognition of the catastrophic change that we have unleashed by hyperconsumption of oil, coal, and natural gas and our recognition of the changes we need to make as a society to slow, if not arrest, the over-heating of the earth. We may acknowledge that climate change is real. But even so, we sit in our cars, with engines running, checking our phones, oblivious to the damage that we are inflicting on the earth. Herein lies the great challenge of our time.
The change we need is pretty straightforward. We need to radically reduce, and perhaps eventually curtail, the consumption of fossil fuels. We need to do this as rapidly as possible. The science is not up for debate. Most coal, oil, and gas must stay under the ground. There is no technological fix—there will never be clean coal, for instance—that will allow us to keep burning at current levels. We do not need radical new renewable technologies. We have solar and wind technologies and storage infrastructures are rapidly growing. But we have to build it. This will require cultural change, a shift in private and public investing priorities, and a radical political struggle against the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. Are we up to the task?
Here is where people, like drug addicts, waffle. Can we not keep doing what we are doing and still save the earth? After all, I like my car and my gas grill. There seems to be a plea, at least from the comfortable classes, for anyone to tell them to stay calm, consume on, that everything will be all right. Enter Gary Sernovitz with The Green and the Black. His message is that we can have it both ways. We can fight climate change and expand our consumption of fossil fuels. If you believe that, then this is the book for you. If you have some extra money laying around, Sernovitz might also tempt you into investing in a fracking venture. Sernovitz works in the finance industry for a company that specializes in fracking. His goal? To tell us all about “fracking” for oil and gas, and how it is not only inevitable and good but actually something close to God’s work. Fasten your seatbelt.
There seems to be a plea, at least from the comfortable classes, for anyone to tell them to stay calm, consume on, that everything will be all right. Enter Gary Sernovitz with The Green and the Black. His message is that we can have it both ways. We can fight climate change and expand our consumption of fossil fuels. If you believe that, then this is the book for you.
What is fracking? Fracking is “hydraulic fracturing.” It is a process of extracting natural gas or oil from dense or “tight” underground layers of rock. These rock formations are like sponges Some are porous. If you punch a drill bit into them, water—or oil or gas—flows to the surface under the pressure of surrounding rock. For much of the past 150 years of oil and gas consumption, we have been draining out this easy, or “conventional” oil and gas. Those days are done. Now most of what is left, at least here in the United States, is not easy, or “conventional.” This is because oil and gas is stuck in “tight rock,” like shale. The rock is less porous. You can drill into it, but oil and gas will not flow freely to the surface. Enter fracking. Wells are drilled into the formations, first down, and then turning horizontally along the length of the deposit, usually about a half a mile. Imagine a steel tube about 4 inches wide pushed down into the earth and then bent into an L-shape, with a very long bottom. Once inserted, cement is pushed down the hole to surround and encase the pipe. The steel is partially removed. Workers then send perf (perforation) guns down the pipe along the length of the concrete casing. The perf gun is a steel tube full of holes stuffed with military-grade plastic explosives encased in a bullet-like charge, each about the size of a golf ball. Schlumberger, an oil service company, sells one charge called the “PowerJet Nova ExtraDeep Penetrating Shaped Charge.” Perf guns look like Bangalore torpedoes. Yet here the explosive is not discharged out the end, but all along the length of pipe, to penetrate the rock with small holes in all directions. Over the half-mile horizontal part of the well, thousands of these charges are set off. That is the fracturing part.
After the perf guns are pulled out, rows of pumping trucks line up at the fracking site and connect long tubes onto the wellhead. These trucks are burning diesel, since one kind of fossil fuel must be burned to force another kind of fossil fuel to the surface of the earth. The trucks pump immense quantities of water, lots of water, sand, silica, and several hundred different kind of chemicals, down into the well. This “frac fluid” has various functions, from preventing corrosion to fighting bacteria. One Yale University study determined that 157 of these chemicals—like chlorine, mercury, arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and the like—are associated with developmental or reproductive toxicity. This frac fluid, along with thousands of gallons of water, is injected into the fractured earth. The hydraulic pumping of the trucks forces open the cracks in the rock. Proppants like silica “prop” open the debris, creating pathways for oil and gas to move outward and upward through the cemented well. This is the hydraulic part.
Much of this water and chemical mixture returns to the surface. The industry calls this “produced water.” Produced water is toxic. That which comes up must be stored in surface sludge ponds, trucked away, or cleaned. Naturally occurring radioactive material also comes up with the produced water. Workers collect this waste in large filters called “frac socks.” Frack socks, full of radioactive waste, must also be dealt with. In some cases, this toxic water is reinjected in older empty wells. This reinjection process is what has caused a wave of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Sometimes some of the water can be reused. Some of this toxic liquid stays underground. Sometimes it leaks into surrounding aquifers.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to atmospheric warming even more so than carbon dioxide. Though it does not stay in the atmosphere as long, methane is also a public health threat. A methane map of the United States shows huge clouds of red over Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, all fracking epicenters.
Because of limitations on the distance and effectiveness of horizontal wells, hundreds of fracked wells must be drilled to drain an oil or gas field. The attendant infrastructure of storage tanks, pipelines and pumping stations radically transforms the landscape. Much of this infrastructure, from the underground well to the above-ground transportation structures, leaks methane. You are breathing in leaked methane when you fill your car with gasoline. It is what you smell. Below the ground, the concrete casing of the wells often also fail. Cement and steel corrode. Methane leaks. Scientists have pointed out, as has the industry itself, that one in 20 wells fail immediately. Over time, 50 percent of all wells leak. Some of that methane finds its way into groundwater supplies. That which comes to the surface leaks into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to atmospheric warming even more so than carbon dioxide. Though it does not stay in the atmosphere as long, methane is also a public health threat. A methane map of the United States shows huge clouds of red over Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, all fracking epicenters. There are about 1.7 million fracked wells in the United States today. Over 80,000 have already failed, and, well, you do the math. The fracking infrastructure is, from this perspective, a giant leaking apparatus. Methane leakage is so bad that even the Republican Congress in the age of Trump failed to overturn Obama’s rule that attempts to force companies to do something about it.
This description is crucial to contextualize adequately the representation of industry supporters like Sernovitz, who view the technology and the process of fracking in heroic terms. The Green and the Black claims to give a fair and balanced treatment, yet from the outset we are in the grip of a pitchman who will subject the reader to several hundred pages of distortion and hyperbole. For those who make it only through page nine, the fear-mongering starts soon:
“If the U.S. shale [fracking] revolution hadn’t happened, oil and gas prices would probably be triple what they are today, the United States might, like Europe, still be feebly climbing out of the global recession, our trade balance would be weaker, the dollar in the pits, the Canadian oil sands would be the dominant source of new North American oil, poor people throughout the world would have less access to energy, the power of Putin and Middle Eastern monarchies would be dangerously magnified, and thriving Iran would be in a much better position to laugh off attempts to limit its quest for nuclear bombs.”
Never mind that some of this has, in fact, come to pass, and the rest is—note the “might” and “probably”—unknowable. If you can stomach the line that fracking has somehow given “poor people throughout the world more access to energy,” then Sernovitz has a deal for you.
But Sernovitz, to his credit, must confront the facts. So, the first part of the book addresses many of the destructive impacts of fracking, albeit in terms less clear than I have attempted to lay out above. Sernovitz points out the disruptive impact that fracking has on small rural towns. Air quality deteriorates. Labor costs rise, undercutting farming. Chemical spills are frequent. Itinerant workers, invariably men, invade small towns, raising housing costs and creating demand for drugs, sex, and alcohol. Pipelines, storage tanks, drilling rigs, and trucks, lots of trucks, overrun the region. Of course, some money is thrown around. Those with mineral rights on land they own may become wealthy by leasing the land to the frackers. Those without land or mineral rights do not benefit at all. And even with money, you must still breathe the air and drink the water, with lawsuits cropping up across the fracklands by households suffering toxic pollution. Sernovitz downplays all of these impacts and highlights—over and over—that the “creative” innovations have made companies more responsible. And, he reminds us, fracking has made some people quite wealthy. He does not report on other issues. For example, the symbolic capital of oil fracking in North Dakota, a place called Williston, is now also the U.S. capital of sex trafficking. Given that the fracking industry is increasingly grappling with high debt and low prices for the product they extract, laborers may earn relatively high salaries during unpredictable drilling cycles. But accident rates are high and workers have few protections for dangerous work. A boom-bust industry means no job security. The investors, nonetheless, tend to earn rapid returns or create mountains of speculative debt.
On the environmental side—which of course, is also felt by human communities—fracking is similar to an act of war on the earth. (Recall, again, the explosives used in perf guns, all developed as military technologies). Sernovitz, like a boy with a new toy, downplays the violence and highlights the technology, equating fracking with the “innovations” of Silicon Valley. The use of explosives and toxic chemicals to force gas and oil from the earth, he seems to say, is akin to the kinds of innovation we need to make a healthier planet. The phrase “shale revolution,” which appears in the title and a 100-odd more times in the text, extends this false equivalence. As for the environmental impacts, Sernovitz is ultimately dismissive. We are asked to take him at his word (even though he lives in Manhattan, in a state that has declared a moratorium on fracking), as follows:
“ … as one who has lived through the boom, saw creative businesses emerge to reduce local impacts through, for instance, frack sand dust control equipment or noise abatement walls, and observed what our own companies were doing, I can report that the impact has been mitigated.”
Frequent use of business-speak about creativity, innovation, disruption, and revolution do little to push back the facts. There are ongoing reports of air and water pollution—and now seismic activity—tied to fracking. A massive rusty, leaking infrastructure has not been mitigated. Fracking is not revolutionary. As with other fossil fuel industries, frackers treat the earth as cheap nature, to be monetized and abandoned. Sernovitz dismisses this at one point as “unavoidable sacrifice.”
Stylistically, the book has another disturbing characteristic: boorish humor. Writing from the shelter of a New York City office, far from the rural communities impacted, Sernovitz’s attempts humor virtually every other paragraph. One blurb lauds his “witty” writing. We are asked, for instance, to think about the challenges of fracking in Texas’s Barnett shale, where the rock is “tight-as-a-flea’s-butthole.” Such man-friendly humor, and here there is much of it, may play well around the water cooler at his hedge fund office. Yet we are not just lauding men making money but discussing water quality for rural households, sick children in central Texas, or spillage of toxic chemicals in rural Pennsylvania. One would at least hope for a sober account. Such jocularity only works if you are in a (male) space of privilege far removed from negative impacts of fracking.
The use of explosives and toxic chemicals to force gas and oil from the earth, he seems to say, is akin to the kinds of innovation we need to make a healthier planet. The phrase “shale revolution,” which appears in the title and a 100-odd more times in the text, extends this false equivalence.
The second part of the book brings the author’s true mission into relief: to convince potential investors—from universities to charitable organizations—that fracking is morally and financially sound. And it is a good way to make money. Sernovitz regales the reader with accounts of his lunches with potential investors in Manhattan restaurants. There he dangles the possibility of high returns before them, while reassuring them that fracking is a good thing. So much wealth was “created” he says, often. To be sure, some people have become wealthy. But much of this wealth was earned at great public cost. Small towns, overrun with trucks and equipment, lack money for policing, road repair or dealing with toxic waste. (One company in North Dakota cut corners by dumping loads of radioactive frack socks in an abandoned gas station). A long-standing legacy of oil power in the United States is a tax system that fails to capture these costs for the public. What is going on here is that those sitting on heaps of capital—call it cash if you want—are desperate to turn their money into more money. The fracking industry, by cutting costs and corners, and shunting off environmental and social costs to local governments and local communities, is, via work like that of Sernovitz, offering to do this. What this means is that people and governments are bearing the costs, both fiscal and environmental, of private gain.
Fracking is not revolutionary. As with other fossil fuel industries, frackers treat the earth as cheap nature, to be monetized and abandoned. Sernovitz dismisses this at one point as “unavoidable sacrifice.”
Never mind all that. Sernovitz invokes the long-standing American myth of the heroic “oil man” to tell us stories about those who “struck it rich.” One such figure is Aubrey McClendon, former CEO of Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake was a major player in the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania. It was there that McClendon made and lost millions, much like the wildcatters of oil yore. Their strategy was acquiring drilling rights through leasing of land. A similar strategy characterized the California oil industry of the early 20th century, as “land men” talked, swindled, and cheated landowners out of their oil rights. Upton Sinclair immortalized this land grab in Oil (1926-27). Eighty years later Hollywood metamorphosed the story, and Sinclair’s villain, James Ross into the pathological oilman Daniel Plainview, memorably played by a devilish Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood (2007). The history was brought to life again by Chesapeake Energy in the Pennsylvania shale gas fields. McClendon oversaw bid-rigging with other companies to keep costs down (and lower benefits that would go to local landowners). McClendon is a kind of hero for Sernowitz, someone willing to bend the rules, not because he was a bad man, but because he had to. Sernovitz spins it as illustrative of the great character of entrepreneurial America. A similarly unconvincing argument played out in another early Hollywood film, Boomtown (1940). There Clark Gable plays a crooked oil man—more or less John D. Rockefeller—who is exonerated for monopolistic practices. As his lawyer argues in the courtroom finale of the film, the oil man was a hero, doing nothing less than playing out the American dream. But when criminals are converted into charismatic heroes, we ought to be a bit suspicious of the business we are asked to embrace. A day after his indictment, McClendon drove his SUV into an overpass embankment and went up in flames.
In the latter chapters, Sernovitz takes on climate change. Predictably, the author casts himself as the voice of reason between two fictitious extremes: science-denying oilmen on the one hand and radical environmentalists on the other. This false equivalence suggests that the middle ground is the place to be. And in today’s political moment, the middle ground is politically dominated by the fossil fuel industry. This allows Sernovitz to come full circle and suggest that things have changed. The oil men are not so bad. Sernovitz apologizes for the oil industry’s history of attacking science. Invoking, among others, Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former secretary of state, suggests that these new oil CEOs have had a “Nixon-in-China” moment on climate change. Therefore, one wonders, are we to ask that they carry on business-as-usual? This seems to be Sernovitz’s position. He tells us that once he realized gas burned cleaner than coal, he “felt for the first time in [his] career firmly on the side of the angels.” Sernovitz concludes his climate change chapter by writing “We must fervently, quickly capture the most climate benefits possible from shale gas, by increasing its use.”
The idea that America needs fracked gas is overblown. The demand for gas to create energy will not continue its wanton growth. In fact, as renewables expand, demand for oil, gas, and coal will do nothing but shrink. Fracking is mostly about making as much money as possible before that happens. In terms of gas, one sector that stands to benefit from cheaper gas is the plastics industry. Think Dow Chemical, as recently reported in the Wall Street Journal. Gas is an input for plastics. Cheap gas means more plastic bags and bottles, just what the planet needs. The other goal of the industry is to export gas elsewhere. Curiously, much of it, for the moment, to the Caribbean, having just been crushed by Hurricane Irma. The islands should be going solar but are locking into fossil fuels since the fracking investors are now investing in gas-fired power plants and gas shipping.
This kind of solipsistic argumentation entails a troubling calculus: we are asked to deepen our dependence on fossil fuels when we should be investing heavily in renewable infrastructures such as wind, solar, and battery storage. The pitch is that since natural gas is cleaner than coal, if we use natural gas to make electricity, this will be a “bridge” while we work on building the renewable infrastructures we need. How long this bridge might be, and how hot the planet might get before we get to the other side, is rarely discussed. The “gas is cleaner than coal” argument is a red herring.
Fracking is increasingly the primary way to extract oil. Nobody has yet come up with an argument that oil is cleaner than coal. And fracked oil has already led to severe human rights issues. The recent conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline—with mercenaries and militarized police attacking the Lakota Sioux as if we were in 1878—were about fracked oil.
The demand for gas to create energy will not continue its wanton growth. In fact, as renewables expand, demand for oil, gas, and coal will do nothing but shrink. Fracking is mostly about making as much money as possible before that happens.
Nor will fracking make us “independent.” We are already independent in natural gas, until the shales run dry, assuming we do not reduce consumption. But we will not frack ourselves to oil freedom. We consume about 20 million barrels of oil per day. Fracking generates about 4 million of these. Conventional oil is about another 4 million. We import the rest, oscillating around 35-50 percent of it, as we have been doing since the 1970s. Oil extraction in the United States is now plateauing, right about where it was in 1971. The best way to become independent—and to “capture the most climate benefits possible”—is to reduce demand. The best way to do that is not by fracking, but by shifting to wind, solar, and storage for most of our electricity and driving electric cars.
The Green and the Black is disappointing in literary and analytical terms. If we are concerned about the climate, it is deeply disturbing. The book may be successful in the echo chamber of the investing classes, mostly among men who might chuckle at locker room jokes. If you have been looking for someone to tell you that, yes, climate change is real, but you can keep on driving your gasoline powered SUV and running your air-conditioning full blast, because, in fact, the environmentalists have their priorities misplaced, then this is the book for you. Witty as ever, Sernovitz will pepper this fairy-tale with humor, so that we all leave the room laughing.
The one lesson to take from The Green and the Black is that fossil fuel men, whether or not they call themselves “liberals” as Sernovitz does, should be taken with a grain of salt. The business has always relied on hype. Like big tobacco, they have spent much money obfuscating the truth. Fracking is no different. As people recognize the reality of global warming, and the links between fossil fuels and other social ills, from war to hurricanes to respiratory ailments, their turn toward renewables will be an unstoppable avalanche. And even if you embrace climate denial, solar and wind are now increasingly cheaper than fossil fuels. A shift in our investing priorities and in our modes of consumption are crucial, to move us toward a real revolution in renewables. Therein, just over the horizon, lie our heroes, and our hope.