Review: Snake Oil: how fracking’s false promise of plenty imperils our future

March 24, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
For those who thought the ‘fracking’ issue was just about water pollution and earthquakes, Richard Heinberg’s Snake Oil might be a little perplexing.
You don’t get to the parts about environmental pollution until about two thirds of the way through the book. But it’s for that very same reason that those who are unaware of these larger dimensions to the shale gas issue will get the greatest benefit from reading the book.
Like myself, Richard Heinberg began to look at the issue of energy and the environment in the early 2000s, and in particular the growing geophysical restrictions on conventional oil and gas supplies.
As ‘conventional’ resources reach their physical limits of production – the point known as ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak gas’ – the energy industry has looked to other ‘unconventional’ energy sources to keep their business models working.
The many faces of a single problem
In Canada that’s been tar sands; in Australia it’s coal seam gas; in Russian that’s drilling in the Arctic Circle; in the USA, and perhaps soon Britain, that’s shale gas and oil.
The first two thirds of ‘Snake Oil’ described the history of how this transition has taken place:
  • how Western oil companies and their home economies have become challenged by high energy prices;
  • how energy agencies and companies have selectively quoted and managed the statistics on energy supply to downplay any talk of a crisis;
  • and as a result, how shale gas was promoted as an energy solution when in fact it was, in that greatest of American traditions, a ‘Snake Oil’ remedy – a toxic cocktail that tricks the unsuspecting consumer into buying it, and which often makes the underlying problems worse.
The book outlines how interest groups have used partial data to talk-up the promise of shale gas in order to gain political support and financial investment; and then how they used that political and financial capital to relax environmental controls and buy publicity for their technology.
It’s just another treadmill
It reveals how the drilling boom sparked by this large-scale investment has been used to promote the economic benefits of shale gas – whilst at the same time hiding the fact that it’s the poor production and fast depletion rates of shale gas well which force this continuous ‘treadmill’ of drilling.
And it uses the oil and gas industry’s own proprietary data sources to demonstrate how, like the resource booms of American history, the current boom of US shale gas is likely to go bust very soon – as investment dries up and the available sites are quickly worked out.
And yes, there’s a chapter on pollution too!
‘Snake Oil’ is an American book, largely based on American data. However, from that wealth of experience we can draw parallels with how the industry has been manipulating public opinion in Britain and Europe, to buy political influence and talk-up their false solution.
In advance of the widespread damage seen in the USA, we can hopefully learn the lessons and stop that same corrupt process happening over here.
Stop this mad policy while we still can!
And unlike the USA, where the damage to states such as Texas and Pennsylvania is largely done, we in the UK still have the time to stop this mad policy before it’s too late.
‘Snake Oil’ shouldn’t just be a book for anti-fracking activists. It has value to the general public, and I would hope that many journalists and policy-makers would read it too.
To that end we should all consider buying a copy and sending it to our pro-fracking Members of Parliament and Council leaders – and demanding that they respond to the information the book contains in order to justify their support to develop this technology in Britain.

Paul Mobbs

Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Tags: book review, Fracking, Shale gas, tight oil