The Frackers, by Gregory Zuckerman. New York: Portfolio, 2013. 404 pp. $29.95 (hardcover).

The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, the second book by Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman, tells the story of the development, over the past several decades, of the amazing technology by which oil and gas have been made to flow from previously unyielding stone, in quantities tallied in the hundreds of billions of barrels and trillions of cubic feet. Zuckerman’s complex narrative crisscrosses the country to Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and the badlands of Montana and the Dakotas. The book is the result of (among other things) more than a hundred hours of interviews with those whose story it tells; Zuckerman often uses the perspective gained from these firsthand accounts to give the story a fly-on-the-boardroom-wall feel.

The Frackers, as the title suggests, is as much about the stories of the men who developed fracking as it is about the technology itself. Some of these men were children of poor immigrants; others grew up in hardscrabble rural western towns. Zuckerman paints detailed portraits of their upbringings and backgrounds. What they all had in common is that these men were focused and driven, verging on obsessed, with making the earth yield its oil and gas riches. They built and risked vast fortunes, sometimes succeeding wildly, sometimes losing everything, only to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and start again.

Zuckerman explains the approach of these “wildcatter” energy explorers:

A wildcatter is an independent operator who searches for oil or natural gas in areas that can be miles from the closest producing well. These men—and they almost always are men—are equal parts gamblers, salesmen, and geologists. Supremely confident, wildcatters drum up financing from banks or investors by describing how they will tap a gusher in a spot others have dismissed, ignored, or misunderstood. They repeat the pitch, no matter how poor their chances of success, until they have the funds to acquire acreage, drill a well, and wait for oil and gas to flow. Wildcatters are responsible for discovering the majority of the nation’s oil and gas. (p. 39)

He later elaborates:

In many ways, the wildcat profession is quintessentially American. It takes a heavy dose of self-assurance and comfort with risk to bet on what might or might not be far below the surface, well out of sight, as well as an unbridled optimism that Americans seem to have in abundance. At the same time, U.S. homeowners usually own the land under their property, unlike citizens in most other countries. As a result, wildcatters can directly negotiate with landowners to buy their drilling rights, rather than go through government officials. The word “wildcat” itself comes from an early-nineteenth-century American slang for a risky business venture. (p. 164)

In other words, America’s fracking revolution is deeply intertwined with America’s capitalist heritage. . . .

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