Modern drilling techniques may spell end of energy crises


Advancements in oil technology have transformed the country’s economy.

Regular energy crises used to be a given fact of American life. Like the tides on the beach, they were expected to roll over the country, leaving behind economic uncertainty and mild panic. From the major ones of 1973 and 1979, to the smaller one in the intervening and following years, worrying about oil production seemed inevitable. Recently, however, something has changed.

The crises have stopped. 

What's different now? It wasn't as though the government wasn't attempting to solve the problem in the past. To the contrary, a slew of cures were attempted, from price controls to tighter regulation. While some provided some short term relief, ultimately, none of them provided a lasting solution. 

The thing that ultimately thwarted the problem for good was innovation. 

George Mitchell isn't a particularly famous man. But the Texas-raised son of Greek immigrants was able to do something that had long seemed impossible: he revolutionized the oil industry. When he died last year, at the ripe old age of 94, he left behind a series of technological advancements that would change the nature of energy in this country for decades to come. 

His idea for hydraulic fracturing in shales seemed foolhardy at first. For a long time, as is often the case with novel ideas, he got nowhere. Then, one day, after years of disappointment in trying to access the "black gold" contained within the Barnett Shale out in the middle of Texas, he finally found what he was looking for. 

The results were spectacular. In a relatively short period of time, Texas has reversed a long-running decline in production and solidified its leading role in the global oil industry — it could rank as highly as ninth next year globally, on par with such heavyweights as Kuwait and Venezuela. The country's trade deficit fell in October, an encouraging development that has been attributed in part to oil exports. Towns that were once struggling for money are now thriving, buoyed by the revenue and jobs created by the newest oil boom. 

The new processes started by Mitchell's foresight have ancillary benefits as well.  Not only are they economically viable over the long-term, they're also much better for the environment and the communities where the jet well pumps are placed. By drilling horizontally rather than vertically, modern equipment allows crews to get huge amounts of oil without disrupting the land or the surrounding residents. 

This all equals good news for both the environment and the economy. The United States's oil output is up by more than half over the past five years. Oil imports have dropped starkly, from 60 percent in 2005 to 35 percent today, a figure which is roughly the same as in 1973 — the year all of these energy crises began in the first place. 

The modern oil boom hasn't just provided heat for homes and gas for cars, though it's certainly done that very well. It's also provided the country with a security that it hasn't had in decades, and stripped away a problem that had once seemed permanently intractable.