In the middle-of-frackin’-nowhere Pennsylvania, Boy Genius is showing off his giant robot: It’s about 150 feet tall, God and the almighty engineers alone know how many hundreds of tons of steel, and four big, flat duck feet on bright orange legs. “Yeah, this is kind of cool,” he says of his supersized Erector Set project. “You can set those feet at 45 degrees, and it will walk around in circles all day,” a colleague adds.
But Boy Genius is not letting himself get too excited about all this — it’s pretty clearly not his first giant robot, and he’s a lot more excited about his seismic-imaging system: “It’s kind of like a GPS, but it’s underground and it works with the Earth’s magnetic characteristics.” Nods all around — that is cool. Everybody here has a three-day beard and a hardhat and steel-toed work boots, but there’s a strong whiff of chess club and Science Olympiad in the air, young men who are no strangers to the pocket protector, who in adolescence discovered an unusual facility for fluid dynamics and now are beavering away at mind-clutchingly complex technical problems, one of which is how to get a 150-foot-tall tower of machinery from A to B without taking it apart and trucking it (solution: add feet). That giant robot may walk, but it isn’t too fast: It can take half a day to move 20 feet, because this isn’t a Transformers movie, this is The Play, and Boy Genius is a member of the startlingly youthful and bespectacled tribe of engineers swarming out of the University of Pittsburgh and the Colorado School of Mines and Penn State and into the booming gas fields of Pennsylvania, where the math weenies are running the show in the Marcellus shale, figuring out how to relentlessly suck a Saudi Arabia’s worth of natural gas out of a vein of hot and impermeable rock thousands of feet beneath the green valleys of Penn’s woods. Forget about your wildcatters, your roughnecks, your swaggering Texans in big hats: The nerds have taken over.
The weird little in-house argot of gas exploration has more plays than Stephen Sondheim: the conventional gas play, the shallow gas play, the Gothic play, the Wyoming play, and the gold-plated godfather of them all, the Marcellus play, which stretches from West Virginia to New York and contains hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Exactly how much recoverable gas is down there is a matter of hot dispute, but the general consensus is: a whole bunch, staggering amounts quantified in numbers that have to be written in exponential expressions (maybe it’s 1.7×1014 cubic feet, maybe 4.359×1014), with the estimates on the higher end suggesting the equivalent of 15 years of total U.S. energy use. There’s so much efficiently combustible stuff down there that the boy geniuses have to spend hours in esoteric preparations for what to do about the oil and gas they hit that they don’t mean to — they’re after the Marcellus gas, but there’s a lot of other methane on the way down.
Given that oil imports account for about half of the total U.S. trade deficit, that U.S. policymakers suffer from debilitating insomnia every time some random ayatollah starts making scary noises about the Strait of Hormuz, and that about half of American electricity comes from burning coal — which, on its very best day, is a lot more environmentally problematic than natural gas (something to think about while tooling down to Trader Joe’s in your 45-percent coal-powered Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf) — exploiting natural gas to its full capability has the potential to radically alter some fundamental economic, national-security, and environmental equations of keen interest in these overextended and underemployed United States. Tens of thousands of new jobs already have been created (want $60,000 a year to drive a water truck with a $2,000 signing bonus? Pennsylvania is calling), and tens of billions of dollars in new wealth has been injected into the ailing U.S. economy, since Marcellus production really picked up around 2008. Pennsylvania and West Virginia saw 57,000 new Marcellus jobs in a single year, as firms ranging from scrappy independents to giants such as Royal Dutch Shell poured billions of dollars into shale investments — land, equipment, buildings, roads, machinery: capital, in a word. Massive capital.