Buried Treasure
An all-of-the-above fuel policy could spur economic recovery and bolster national security.


Clifford D. May

America is in economic distress. The crisis threatens our national security because a nation that is weak economically cannot be strong in other ways. If only we had an untapped source of wealth, a nest egg we could crack and use to grow the economy, create jobs, raise Americans’ standard of living while providing the resources needed to defend the nation from its enemies.

Oh wait: We do.

Where is it? It’s is in the ground, under the seas, in our garbage and our agricultural waste. Start with “shale oil” and “shale gas” — really oil and natural gas layered within sedimentary rock. Large shale oil fields have been found in South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada. 

Until recently, this buried treasure was expensive to access. Now, however, revolutionary new technologies are changing the cost equation. The deposits can be precisely located, so fewer holes are needed. Horizontal drilling makes it possible to reach additional deposits underground up to 6,000 feet away from the original hole. Next comes hydraulic fracturing: using pressurized water to free the hydrocarbons and bring them to the surface. One drawback: The water may pick up heavy metals and other toxic byproducts, so it must be either disposed of or cleaned. Even more recently, however, another variation of fracking has been developed: Instead of water, propane gel is used to release the trapped oil and natural gas. Underground and under pressure, the gel turns into vapor and returns to the surface where it is collected for recycling.

Often misunderstood: “Shale oil” is not the same as “oil shale.” The former can be accessed by fracking, the latter — which contains a much lower percentage of organic matter more densely encased in rock — cannot. So while shale oil is already producing fuel and profits, the technologies to commercialize more plentiful oil shale have not yet been developed.

But the point is this: Working together, America’s scientific innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors can conquer this subterranean frontier. They can make other fuel breakthroughs as well — more on some of those in a moment. And if they do, it will enhance both economic and national security.

Government policies could help. At the very least, they could be designed not to hinder. In particular, policy makers should set three high priority goals: (1) Make transportation fuels more abundant, more diverse, and cheaper. (2) Dramatically reduce the West’s dependence on fuel produced by regimes hostile to the West and decrease, as much as possible, the wealth we are transferring to such regimes. (3) Encourage the development of a free and highly competitive fuel market — something we do not have now.