Natural Gas and the State of the Union

In his latest State of the Union address, President Obama announced that:

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years… The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy. And, by the way, it was public research dollars — over the course of 30 years — that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock, reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground… Our experience with shale gas, our experience with natural gas, shows us that the payoffs on these public investments don’t always come right away. Some technologies don’t pan out; some companies fail. But I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy.

In addition to upsetting those concerned about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, this part of his speech has also provoked criticism for “exaggerating” the role of the federal government in fostering the emergence of the natural gas boom.

For instance, a US News and World Report article entitled “Obama Exaggerates Role of Federal Government in Natural Gas Boom” by Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, asserts:

The president’s claim that the federal government helped create the hydraulic fracturing boom is specious at best.

However, even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the government’s role in oil and gas technologies generally and hydraulic fracturing related technologies specifically is far more involved and complex than acknowledged by Kish’s article. For instance, despite his claims to the contrary, the government played an important role at many points in the last 30 years, including in the case of Mitchell Energy. According to one recent article:

Mitchell Energy’s first horizontal well was subsidized by the federal government, according to former geologist and Vice President for Mitchell. “They did a hell of a lot of work,” said Steward, “and I can’t give them enough credit for that. DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish DOE’s involvement.”

Rather than an isolated example, this vignette is indicative of the substantial role played by the government in a variety of oil and gas technologies, many related to hydraulic fracturing as it is now practiced. For instance, during the 1970s the Department of Energy invested more than $92 million in research related to the extraction of natural gas from shale reservoirs.

This is not to say that private organizations have not played an important role as well. My point is not to declare a winner between government agencies and private industry, but simply to note that any thoughtful consideration of the record will show that both private organizations and government agencies were significantly involved in the process over a large period of time. In actor-network terms, innovation implicates heterogeneous social and material actors, and is likely to result in hybrid forms of organizing. As a result, framing the problem up as either private innovation or government support are likely to be dead on arrival as a practical matter.

Further, on top of its direct involvement in technology research (such as through the Department of Energy), a reasonable accounting of the government’s role would also consider the role of tax incentives (without which operators such as Mitchell would have been unlikely to have drilled wells), the role of favorable regulations such as the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (without which operators would not be exempt from the liabilities of hydraulic fracturing), and the important role played by agencies such as the EIA and USGS in quantifying available reserves (without which operators would have difficulty raising the capital necessary for drilling).

In short, consistent with President Obama’s claims, and contrary to the assertions of US News and World Report, it is difficult to conceive of the oil and gas industry as we now know it without significant support and involvement by the US government.