Fracking with Skippy never occurred to George Mitchell, the legendary gasman who staked his fortune on the seemingly crackpot idea that you could efficiently get gas out of a rock, but he tried everything else. Range engineer Mark Whitley was with Mitchell in the early days, and still gets a little edge in his voice when he talks about the dicey prospect of having invested about $1 billion of a company worth only about that much in a technology that nobody thought would work. Noting that President Obama claimed that “it was public research dollars” that made shale extraction possible, he laughs without mirth, and looks like he wants to spit: “Not true,” he says. “We tried everything known to man to get a rock to produce. There’s a lot of people who claim to be the father of the Marcellus, but if you didn’t put any money in or take any gas out, then what’s that? It was industry studies, industry experience, and industry dollars that did this, and we’ve driven up production more rapidly than anybody thought possible.” And it was far from a done deal for years: “We could have thrown in the towel any time during the first ten years, but the one guy who didn’t want to quit was the guy in charge: George.” (George. Not, incidentally, Barack.) They tried all sorts of brews to get the shale to give up the gas, and, as the expenses mounted, they tried cheaper and cheaper alternatives, eventually settling on the low-tech combination of water and sand that turned out to be the thing that actually works. “Economics drove it,” Whitley says.
The gas guys scoff at President Obama’s claim that federal ingenuity produced the shale boom, and they scoff harder at their rivals’ occasional pleas for government handouts, notably T. Boone Pickens’s plan to have the government require long-haul trucks to convert to natural gas and then have taxpayers pick up the bill for it. “The best thing the federal government can do is stay out of our way,” Whitley says. “Leave us alone, and we are happy. We are well and appropriately regulated by the state.”