OilRig

The Shale Revolution: What’s the Big Fracking Deal?

By: Andy Crawford

Part of what we do on BBT is write about any topic which we find interesting. We’ve written on topics as diverse as the Delta Blues, Appalachian forestry, and spark plugs. So, allow me to come out of left field with another topic: fracking.

I recently began reading a lot about U.S. energy policy, including a series of articles in Foreign Affairs addressing fracking from many different perspectives. In short, it’s an interesting topic with far-reaching and fascinating effects that is completely reshaping the national, and indeed global, economy.

What is fracking?

Without knowing anything, fracking is a bit of a scary word. It summons images of violent cracks in the Earth that could lead to earthquakes or massive sink holes. Even the word itself is hard and violent sounding.

Fracking is a process of extracting oil and natural gas by injecting high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals into shale. Until recently, drilling technology could not efficiently reach reservoirs of oil and natural gas packed into the shale. By drilling the well horizontally into the ground, instead the traditional vertical direction, we can now reach large amounts of oil and natural gas in a much more efficient way.

Fracking vs. traditional oil drilling.  Credit: Foreign Policy Blogs

Fracking vs. traditional oil drilling. Credit: Foreign Policy Blogs

So why is fracking such a big deal?

If you recall 2007/2008 you’ll remember U.S. energy policy was at the forefront of the presidential election. It was a time of high gas prices, and chants of “Drill Baby, Drill” could be heard at campaign rallies. Some called for more oil refineries and offshore drilling, and others insisted wind and solar weren’t unicorns and could actually replace fossil fuels.

It was around this time that fracking really took off in America. All of a sudden there was a huge surge in domestic oil and natural gas production in our own backyards. In 2008 the price of natural gas per thousand cubic feet was $13.50. By 2009 that price had dropped to $4.00. Considering natural gas is 25% of American energy consumption, this was a huge boost to an economy recovering from the Great Recession.

There was a similar effect in the oil industry. The price of a barrel of oil has not been close to the $100 per barrel we saw for much of the first part of this century. The United States is now one of the largest oil producers in the world, and is expected to overtake Russia, the second leading oil producer, by the end of the decade. The International Energy Agency projects that the U.S. could eventually surpass Saudi Arabia to become the leading oil producer in the world.

It is no wonder that the two states that have embraced fracking the most have experienced huge economic growth over the last six years. Thanks to a booming energy sector, North Dakota’s unemployment rate is an astounding 2.6%. According to the American Enterprise Institute, Texas accounted for 15% of the nation’s job growth in 2013, even though the state accounts for only 8% of the population. This is largely thanks to a booming oil industry.

It’s also worth noting that the abundance of natural gas is driving a comeback of the American manufacturing sector.

Why is this only happening in America?

America has been on the front end of the shale revolution. Four million oil and gas wells have been drilled in the U.S. versus 1.5 million in the rest of the world. This is because America is one of the freest developed nations on Earth. American law respects private property owners, allowing them to own the mineral rights below the surface of their property. In Europe, Russia, and China, property owners often have no right to the resources below the surface. An enterprising company must navigate an expensive and bureaucratic process before they can begin to drill.

America also has a financial system that makes it easy for entrepreneurs wishing to invest in new technology to receive the capital they need. Fracking was not developed by Big Oil. Those companies gave up on the mainland a long time ago, and have been drilling in the ocean for decades. It was small, competitive, and innovative companies that developed fracking technology.

Lastly, America has largely left fracking unregulated (although some states and cities have banned the process). Environmentalists, particularly in Europe, have managed to restrict the practice. France has actually banned fracking all together. (This means they will continue to import oil and gas from Russia, and directly fund Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine and Georgia…but whatever.)

Credit: Center for Energy and Climate Economics

Credit: Center for Energy and Climate Economics

What about environmental concerns?

It’s completely reasonable to question the environmental impact of fracking. Drilling always leads to questions of soil and water contamination, possible seismic activity, and pollution that can come from the above-ground drilling site itself. For example, there have been recent concerns raised about planned fracking in Virginia possibly leading to a contamination of the Chesapeake.

Fracking usually takes place well below the water table, which means there is little chance of contamination. Any instances of tainted water have been isolated, and are connected to poor well construction or the inevitable surface spill. While worrisome, it is important to remember that these are complications that can come from any kind of drilling, and not just fracking. There is no evidence the action of fracking causes ground pollution. In fact, the chemicals used to break the shale are those found in toothpaste or ice cream.

There have been reports of increased seismic activity in areas of shale drilling, but they are usually too low on the Richter scale to be felt.

As for air pollution, locations near oil and gas wells have seen large increases in smog. Oil wells in Colorado, most of which have been built since 2010, are the state’s largest cause of smog. Most of this is produced by the tanks, valves, and trucks used to store and transport the gas and oil.

Ultimately, fracking becomes a risk-benefit analysis. The economic benefits are clearly substantial. The world continues to run on oil and gas, and that will continue into the foreseeable future. Fracking continues to give America an advantage over other countries in energy production, and that takes power away from geopolitical foes like Russia and virtually the entire Middle East. Furthermore, natural gas is much cleaner than coal, producing much less carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Still, there are environmental risks of which people should be aware. Oil and gas companies must continue to develop industry-wide best practices to minimize pollution and any other hazards that can result from drilling.

Andy is reminded of that episode of The Office where Michael Scott reads one article on China and thinks he’s an expert. It should be pointed out that 90% of the information in this article was gleaned from the May/June Issue of Foreign Affairs. In particular, please see “Welcome to the Revolution,” by Edward L. More, “The United States of Gas,” by Robert A. Hefner, III, and “Don’t Just Drill, Baby- Drill Carefully,” by Fred Krupp.

A BBT suggestion for a perfect Thanksgiving turkey

Fried_Turkey_Brine_800x600

By: Casey Carpenter

After I got married, my wife and I started cooking the Thanksgiving meal for my family in Jackson, TN. My wife and I both love to cook, but this isn’t just any meal. Everyone has a different list of dishes that must be included at Thanksgiving, and we were no different. We finally agreed to green beans, corn, potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing / dressing, and a surfeit of desserts. And of course, a turkey. That was my one job – perfectly cook a turkey.

I had never cooked a turkey before, but I enjoy a good culinary challenge. All I really remembered of every turkey I’ve eaten growing up was how dry they can be. I’ve had roasted and deep fried. I’m not saying that I’ve only eaten dry turkey, but many left me reaching for copious helpings of gravy. It’s pretty easy to dry out a bird, considering the water content in their muscles are much less than other animals. Think about it – you’re eating something that used to fly. Less water, less weight, less effort required to move it through the air.

So my goal was relatively simple: don’t serve a dried out turkey. So, I made sure to brine the bird. This involved making a “marinade” of sorts for the turkey to sit in for 24 hours. There are many different recipes for brine, but they all use healthy amount of salt and sugar. I remember the first brine I made consisted of an entire pound of Morton salt, two cups of brown sugar, and a bunch of other spices that were supposed to give the turkey a unique bouquet. I don’t remember much of the minor spices, but the salt and sugar do wonders for increasing the turkey’s water content both before and after cooking. Translation: A VERY JUICY BIRD!

My first attempt - a great success.

My first attempt – a great success.

This year, I’m trying a new brine recipe. I found it the other day as my wife and I were preparing for this year’s meal. I knew I had to try it, mainly because it lists beer and bacon as two ingredients. I think I stopped after reading those two. Here is the recipe, as found on foodandwine.com, with my comments in bold italics:

INGREDIENTS:

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

8 bay leaves

1 cup dark brown sugar – dark brown sugar has more molasses than regular brown sugar, which the Carpenters will be using.

1 cup kosher salt

2 onions, cut into thick wedges

1 pound slab bacon, skin removed and meat sliced 1/3 inch thick – I’m pretty sure a high quality pre-sliced bacon will work just fine.

Six 12-ounce bottles Guinness stout

One 12 to 14-pound turkey – 20-pound turkey, it’s just how we roll.

DIRECTIONS:

1. In a very large pot, combine the mustard seeds, peppercorns and bay leaves and toast over moderate heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the brown sugar and salt and remove from the heat. Add 4 cups of water and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved; let cool completely. If needed, put the pot back onto heat to dissolve the salt and sugar, but try not to boil.

2. Add the onions, bacon, Guinness and 16 cups of cold water to the pot. Add the turkey to the brine, breast side down, and top with a heavy lid to keep it submerged. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Most people (including our family) don’t have a pot big enough to hold their turkey. I’ve used a heavy duty garbage bag in the past, which seemed to work pretty well. The other issue you might have is finding room in the refrigerator – good luck.

3. Preheat the oven to 350° and position a rack on the bottom shelf. Lift the turkey from the brine, pick off any peppercorns, mustard seeds and bay leaves and pat dry. Transfer the turkey to a large roasting pan, breast side up. Scatter the onion wedges in the pan and add 1 cup of water. Using toothpicks, secure the bacon slices over the breast. Roast the turkey for about 2 hours, turning the pan occasionally, until an instant-read thermometer inserted deep into the turkey thighs registers 150°. Remove the bacon and return the turkey to the oven. If your legs are looking pretty brown, you can lightly cover them with aluminum foil to keep them from burning. Roast for about 1 hour longer, until the breast is browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted in a thigh registers 170°. I’ve stopped cooking at 165 degrees before. Remember, you can always cook it longer if it looks undercooked, but you can’t reverse the process. Transfer the turkey to a carving board. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes before slicing that bad boy open.

That’s pretty much it. No basting, and no starting the turkey early in the morning and checking it all day. There are plenty of brine recipes that do not involve bacon or beer, so if you would like to try brining but do not want the beer or bacon, do a quick Google search (Emeril’s brine is very good).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

hollywoodland

The Golden Age of Hollywood

By: Andy Crawford

Growing up, I used to consider old black and white movies to be boring. For one…they were in black and white. Nobody watches The Wizard of Oz for the bland Kansas scenes. They want to see the brilliant land of Oz. Secondly, there were no special effects or fun action scenes. What old movie could compare to a city-size alien ship blowing up the White House ala Independence Day? And I highly doubted there was a scene with as much action and fun as the Ghosbusters hunting Slimer through the Sedgewick Hotel. Old movies were boring marathons of dialogue and not much else.

Well, just as a child progresses from reading books with colorful pictures to those without, as I got older I began appreciating old movies. Perhaps the first classic film I came to like was It’s a Wonderful Life. I remember my 5th grade teacher showing the movie in one of the last days before the Christmas break, so I was left with little option but to watch it. I loved it, of course. Who doesn’t enjoy the sentimental story of a small town rallying around Jimmy Stewart’s selfless George Bailey in his time of dire need?

It wasn’t long until I saw another sentimental tale directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As the social studies nerd that I am, I was on the edge of my seat as Senator Joseph Smith filibustered against the mighty and corrupt Washington political machine. It was instantly one of my top five favorite movies of all time.

By high school, I determined I was a Jimmy Stewart fan. I would look for his movies to come on television, and caught other flicks like Winchester ’73 (1950), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and You Can’t Take it With You (1938). These films opened me up to other directors, actors, and genres I liked.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur at their most charming in You Can’t Take it With You (1938 Best Picture Winner).

Today, I regularly peruse Turner Classic Movies or Netflix for old movies to watch. I’ll record anything starring Cary Grant, Lionel Barrymore, John Wayne, or Humphrey Bogart. You could say Jimmy Stewart was my gateway drug to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

But what is the Golden Age of Hollywood?

It’s hard to draw a distinct line for when the Golden Age began and ended. Generally, the Golden Age began in the early 1930s when silent films gave way to “talkies”. It was around this time that the movie industry instituted the Production Code, which was an attempt to censor films for profanity, violence, and sexuality. Pursuant to a Supreme Court case, Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915), movies were considered a business activity and not a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment.

In the subsequent decades, major studios like MGM, Paramount, and Warner Brothers began producing hundreds of movies a year. Budgets were relatively small, and production did not take that long. The studios functioned much like factories, and it wasn’t odd for one actor to star in several movies a year. Clark Gable appeared in 12 movies in 1931.

By the mid-1960s, this business model began to die out. Movie audience became younger and more artsy, and the Golden Age gave way to New Hollywood. This new era featured young stars like Warren Beatty, Robert DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman, and new innovative directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Hollywood abandoned the Production Code and switched to the MPAA rating system we are familiar with today (PG, PG-13, R, etc.), which allowed for more explicit content.

What makes the Golden Age so great?

Golden Age movies are notable for their focus on straight forward narrative, and immersing the audience in a viewing experience that renders the production invisible. Unlike the New Hollywood era where the camera is often shaky or scenes are shot at odd angles, movies from the Golden Age try to keep the audience from noticing they are watching a movie at all. Personally, I prefer this method of shooting a film, and this is why one of my least favorite periods in film is the late 60s and early 70s.

Because movies were often shot in a studio, most shots are medium to close shots of the actors. This meant that much of the movie was carried by the actors’ performances, and not by special effects or large sweeping shots of a huge cast or live set. For this reason, some of the greatest performances of all time occurred during the Golden Age. This was the era that gave us Gregory Peck in To Kill and Mockingbird (1962), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Malron Brando

With the Production Code in place, one may think Golden Age films are too whitewashed and cannot compare to the artistic films of New Hollywood and on. However, with so many films being produced per year, many upstart directors and script writers managed to get original stories into production that can be considered nothing short of brilliant. This was the era that produced Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane(1941). As often happens, art flourishes when it must innovate around otherwise stifling rules. Hitchcock arguably became the master of suspense because he had to work around what he couldn’t show on screen.

Lastly, the Golden Age of Hollywood is Americana at its finest. The 1930s-1960s were an era of American cultural hegemony, the likes of which have no equal in world history. The films that were produced in this era were homegrown with little to no foreign influence, and were disseminated across the world. Even today, the caricature of American men is John Wayne, and American women Marilyn Monroe. These films had a powerful and lasting impact on American and world culture.

As a way of recommending and giving commentary on so many of the great classic movies of that era, we are launching an ongoing series, Golden Age Reviews. These are films that stand next to other more modern classics, like Star Wars, Shawshank Redemption, Forest Gump, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds, Gravity, and anything Pixar. It’s my hope that you will find one of your favorite movies was made decades before you were even born.

The first review on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is already up. You can find all of the subsequent reviews by clicking on the Golden Age Reviews tab at the bottom of this article.

Also check out our previous articles on classic westerns, and classic movies every man should see.

Andy really hopes Dish Network and Turner Broadcasting come to an agreement soon, or he won’t have as many movies to write about.