Fracking and the Feds

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:53 PM EST

We all know that the federal government was responsible for the development of the internet. But Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tell another story of government R&D today that's a lot less familiar. It's about the development of fracking technology that's opened up massive amounts of natural gas in shale formations:

The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.

This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.

Read the rest for the whole story. This doesn't really take anything away from Mitchell, who really did spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop the technologies that finally cracked the shale code. But as Elizabeth Warren says, people who make a lot of money do it with the help of huge amounts of public infrastructure that make their businesses possible. Likewise, lots of scientific breakthroughs are done with the help of huge amounts of basic research that are funded and/or run by the federal government. Fracking is just the latest example.

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