Capitalism, said economist Joseph Schumpeter seven decades ago, is a process of creative destruction. New inventions, new processes, new methods of organization lead to the creation of new profitable and efficient businesses and to the destruction of old ones unable to compete.
There are few accounts of the creative side of Schumpeter's phrase more vivid than The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters, a new book by Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman.
For years, politicians, policy experts and corporate executives have tried to reshape American energy policy and development. They have operated on a series of assumptions seemingly based on experience and logic.
One is that oil and gas production in the United States was inevitably in decline. Another is that we can move toward energy independence by increasing use of renewables like wind and solar energy.
Those assumptions seem to have been refuted in the course of this young century by a group of audacious outsiders who have made great fortunes -- and in some cases lost them.
The Frackers tells their story. It tells the story of George Mitchell, son of a Greek immigrant, who was convinced that hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- could bring in vast amounts of natural gas from the Barnett Shale in north Texas.
It tells the story of Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward, whose Chesapeake firm bought mineral leases atop vast shale deposits, becoming America's No. 2 gas producer, but overexpanding disastrously.
It tells the story of Harold Hamm, a sharecropper's son who rose from picking cotton to having a $12 billion fortune by prying oil out of the Bakken shale of North Dakota.
And it tells the story of Charif Souki, Lebanese immigrant and proprietor of the Los Angeles restaurant where Nicole Simpson ate and Ronald Goldman served their last meals, who charmed others into financing a liquid natural gas export terminal in Louisiana.
This is mostly a story of private enterprise in action. Government studies provided some early support for fracking, but government energy experts lagged far behind these wildcatters in appreciating the potential for extracting gas and oil from shale.
It's also worth noting that these men were not motivated simply by greed. Mitchell had a vision that America could liberate itself from dependence on foreign energy, and had the satisfaction of seeing the nation on the road there when he died last summer at 94.
McClendon and Ward preached that shale gas could provide a clean alternative to coal and oil, an essential interim step to developing renewables competitive in price.
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