Those crazy frackers
Last month, outside the village of Rexton, N.B., dozens of protesters clashed with police. They were there to demonstrate against hydraulic fracturing, a method of drilling for oil and gas better known as fracking. The protesters, many from the nearby Elsipogtog First Nation, had been blocking access to a seismic testing site operated by SWN Resources, the local division of a large Texas-based natural gas company. In one day alone, 40 protesters were arrested at the site, and six police cars were torched amid charges from both sides of escalating violence and brutality.
The battle in Rexton, though unusually nasty, was hardly unique. In the past five years, fracking—which involves breaking up subterranean rock formations using a slurry of water and chemicals—has become a magnet for activist ire. In the U.S., frackers have been blamed for polluting water tables, destroying ranches and even causing earthquakes. In Canada, anti-fracking protesters have pushed for fracking bans across the country.
But while the environmental side of the fracking story has been well told, the business side has not. And no matter what you think of fracking, it is a remarkable business tale. Frackers have, in less than a decade, reversed a generational decline in U.S. fossil-fuel production. They have helped spur a revival in domestic manufacturing by offering a glut of cheap natural gas. And they’ve dramatically reduced America’s dependence on foreign oil.
In The Frackers, veteran Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman tells the story of the entrepreneurs, engineers and small-town players behind this unlikely energy boom. Zuckerman doesn’t exactly ignore the controversy around fracking in his book. But he does do his best to sidestep it. The Frackers, as a result, is pretty much a pure business narrative. And judged by that standard, it’s a spectacular success.
Zuckerman is among the best-connected reporters in the U.S. business world. (He broke the story of JPMorgan’s disastrous London Whale trade last year.) With over 300 hours of interviews with the major players behind the fracking boom—including Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward from Chesapeake Energy and Harold Hamm from Continental Resources—the book is brimming with juicy details and insider insight. (One great fact: to avoid suspicion while scouting land in North Dakota’s Bakken fields, one company adopted a shell name they hoped would sound Canadian and thus unthreatening to rivals.)
The story Zuckerman tells is in many ways the prototypical narrative of American business success. A group of low-level players, operating in fields the big companies long ago abandoned, bucked all expert opinion to create billions in value out of virtually nothing. McClendon’s co-founding investment in Chesapeake, to cite one example, was just $50,000. By 2008 his stake was worth $3 billion. And he enjoyed spending it. From $10,000 wines to homes all over the world and even his own NBA team (McClendon bought a 19% stake in the Oklahoma City Thunder), the resource player’s lifestyle was especially outlandish. But getting there, for him or the rest of the fracking pioneers, was never easy or guaranteed.
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