Future Tense

It’s Time To Frack the Innovation System

What the history of fracking tells us about our short-sighted R&D system.

Engineers on the drilling platform of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility on Oct. 7, 2012, in England

Photograph by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

On April 18, 1977, President Jimmy Carter went on television and declared that we were running out of domestic natural gas.

But he was wrong. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy was conducting the Eastern Gas Shales Project. It had two goals: evaluate the gas potential of Devonian and Mississippian shale basins and develop new drilling, stimulation, and recovery technologies. The key finding of the project, according to former Mitchell Energy Vice President Dan Steward, was that there is “a hell of a lot of gas in shales.”

We weren’t running out of natural gas, as Carter had claimed; in fact, we had gobs of it. We just lacked the technology to extract it. And so a coordinated private-public R&D effort was launched to create a technological fix. It was a kind of mini-Manhattan project, with the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer played by the wildcatting engineer-entrepreneur George P. Mitchell. He was convinced that the enormous quantities of gas locked tightly in the Barnett Shale, located in his home state of Texas, could be squeezed out. At the time, the technological feat seemed so unlikely that one skeptic dourly told Steward: “If the Barnett is the best thing we have, then we don’t have shit.”

DOE subsidized Mitchell to drill his first horizontal wells, covering any costs beyond a typical vertical well, and the federal government provided unconventional gas tax credits. The Bureau of Economic Geology created high-resolution images of rock surfaces that yielded information about their porosity. Union Pacific Resources, the Fort Worth-based exploration and production company, shared its superior method for hydraulic fracturing. DOE’s Sandia Labs contributed microseismic fracture mapping software that helped the operator make adjustments to improve the flow of gas.

 Mitchell put it all together, and by the time he sold his company to Devon Energy in 2002, the idea of extracting natural gas from shale was about to turn from technological pipe dream to very real economic powerhouse. Roughly 35 years after Carter’s doomsday speech, we have so much natural gas that prices have plummeted, and facilities originally designed to import it are being retooled to export it.

It was an impressive effort to solve a complex problem. And just as with the Manhattan Project, we see a worrisome asymmetry. While proactive, systematic thought was brought to bear on the technical challenge, the social implications were left to irrational, ad hoc, and reactive muddling.

The shale gas R&D projects assumed a kind of vacuum. The only criteria were technical feasibility and economic profitability, and the innovators failed to consider questions about how the technologies would play out in the real world. What is the long-term fate of the chemicals that remain underground? What do we do with the toxic mixture of fracking fluids and naturally occurring radioactive materials that flows back up the wellbore during drilling and production? How will roads handle the increase in traffic volume that results from the roughly 1,000 truck trips (hauling fracking fluids and waste water) it takes to get each well producing? What are the air quality and climate implications? Can we safely frack in places where people live? What happens when the wells run dry? Is it wise to further commit ourselves to a finite fossil resource that requires such extreme measures to extract?

Why weren’t these questions asked with the same rigor as the technical questions? It is because we have an innovation system that only asks “how to,” not “what if?” As a result, we have enormous powers to change the world and the way we live, but essentially zero capacity to guide those powers wisely or responsibly. We promote transformative research with one hand and clean up its messes with the other. And throughout we lack any clear sense about what needs transforming and why.

The lesson from shale gas development is one we should have learned a long time ago: We need to rethink and broaden the parameters of innovation.

The current myopic system is too much like Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” We unleash poorly understood powers and try to ride out the resulting problems. Goethe’s is a story of humans controlling nature through an artifice that, in turn, controls humans. It results in the kind of reverse adaptation one can find in many U.S. cities, where people seem to be primarily in the business of creating habitats for cars, despite the pollution and financial drain.

As our technological powers grow, we can no longer chalk things up to unintended consequences. Instead, we need those who design our technical systems to take broader social and ethical questions into consideration. This isn’t a novel insight: In the ‘60s the American musician Tom Lehrer put it in the form of a song about the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “ ‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Once the frack fluid is pumped down, who cares where it goes?

For too long, “innovation” has meant just this kind of thoughtlessness, in which questions of social context are not in anyone’s department. Engineering models simplify nature in order to control it. But there is always the danger that the models overlook something important. Unless the models can be challenged and complexified, we won’t know what we have overlooked until it is too late. As with shale gas development, we’ll be forced to try to cobble environmental and social values onto a juggernaut that already has significant momentum.

We need to frack the innovation system—create fissures to let in more people and more perspectives. Researchers must obtain the informed consent of individuals participating in trials of new pharmaceuticals. The same should hold for things like shale gas development that amount to large-scale social experiments. Those of us living atop shale plays have been enrolled as unwilling human subjects of research. There are pitfalls to including the public in science and technology policies: Those who shout the loudest, even if they are a small minority, may end up setting the course. But these problems are no more difficult than those associated with getting gas out of shale. We just have not invested comparable time or intellectual energy into processes of design-by-democracy.

Some might argue that we now account for the broader contexts of innovation through the ethical, legal, and social implications research that often accompanies major R&D projects. Shale gas would have turned out better, they will claim, if it would have had ELSI researchers working in parallel with the scientists and engineers. But too often ELSI researchers dare not bite the hand that feeds them.

More importantly, the ELSI model of innovation reinforces the wall between the two cultures: Humanists do “values,” and scientists and engineers do “facts.” But there is no such thing as “value-free” work. Our innovators cannot help but make choices with social and ethical dimensions. No ethics expert can do this thinking for them. If we want to rid ourselves of a myopic innovation system, then we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who see things in the round.