Three hours west of Washington, D.C., U.S. Route 50 emerges from the West Virginia forest in a gentle curve. On the south side of the highway rises an enormous natural gas drilling rig. To its left and slightly behind it is a gas separation plant under construction. This is the "wet gas" portion of the Marcellus shale-gas play that underlies Appalachia. The separation plant will divide the wet gas into propane, pentane, butane and the like. In front of the rig and closest to the highway is a kind of filling station with color-coded fittings instead of hoses on the pumps. When it's completed, 40 tanker trucks a day will pull up and load the various gases for delivery to plants up the chemistry food chain.
Watching over this process was a man about 50 years old in a new but dusty white pickup. He's the site-preparation foreman, there to make certain everything is squared away properly. Natural gas drilling is a second career for him. He worked for many years in the aluminum plant in Ravenswood, W.V., until it closed. He's visibly tired because he's been working hard, probably with a lot of overtime, but for once in his life, he is making excellent wages and benefits. During the summer, he got a little time off and took his wife deep-sea fishing off Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Since the end of World War II, there have been three economic revolutions: the jet engine, integrated circuits (modern electronics) and the Internet, all of them either invented by or developed by Americans. A monthlong, 5,000-mile journey by four-wheel-drive pickup through the back roads of the Marcellus in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Bakken in northern North Dakota and the Eagle Ford in South Texas made it overwhelmingly clear that hydro-fracking for shale oil and gas is the fourth one. Fracking has been around for a long time, but it's the new technology, particularly the horizontal drilling aspect, that makes it so exciting. Dow Jones reports that the International Energy Agency believes that the global energy map is being redrawn by the resurgence in oil and gas production in the United States.
All an observer has to do is stand and watch the activity in little towns like Waverly, W.V., Nixon, Texas, or Killdeer, N.D., and it is impossible not to be caught up in the excitement. Nixon, for example, has no stoplight, but it does have a four-way stop sign. From the west comes a line of diesel-fuel tankers, from the north the flatbeds loaded with drilling pipe, from the east the gravel and cement trucks, all turning south toward Karnes City, a center of the Eagle Ford drilling operations. Up from the south comes a line of empties. All the drivers are very polite. Everyone takes his turn at the four-way because this is not a one-off; it's a continuous process.
Numbers? How about $5.1 trillion in capital spending to rejuvenate the American manufacturing sector, or 3.5 million new jobs, all rippling their way through the American economy over the next 10 to 20 years? These numbers come from respected oil analyst Daniel Yergen. Add in the hundred years of new natural gas reserves in the United States and the 50 percent reduction in emissions that natural gas gives over traditional means of electrical generation, and the tens of billions of dollars in new downstream chemical plants that depend on natural gas feed stocks.
My investigation was originally intended to look at an exhilarating new industry, but discovered a startling series of human-interest stories. A young man in his early 20s from upstate New York drives a gravel truck in North Dakota. Two very tired Hispanic diesel mechanics in their 30s enjoy a quick lunch at the Dairy Queen near Leal, Texas. All make do very well, all contributing to American energy security. Arguably, the most sensitive cases are those who have seen hard times and are getting a second chance, like the recovering addict in his 40s from Chicago who is clean because the companies are strict about random drug tests. Now he's a rigger battling winter ice in North Dakota, working long hours but making more money than he has ever seen in his life.
Sadly, all of this has its enemies. Within hours of President Obama's re-election, the National Journal released a profile, saying, "The man who crushed [the] Keystone [pipeline] is targeting fossil fuels in an anti-apartheid campaign." Mr. Obama himself sent out the semaphore signals in his victory speech election night, calling for efforts to make certain America "isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet." Watch out for rule by decree. It may be coming.
William C. Triplett II is former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-author of "Bowing to Beijing" (Regnery, 2011).