“Frackers” author: ‘Both sides really overstate the arguments’
Questions for Gregory Zuckerman
Author Gregory Zuckerman, center, flanked by William “Buck” Butler and his son, Rodney. The Butlers lost a fortune from ranchland they owned in Nixon, Tex., before earning more than $20 million from selling fracking rights to a natural gas company. Photo courtesy Gregory Zuckerman
December 26, 2013
While he was growing up in Providence, RI, Gregory Zuckerman said he “always loved Wall Street.” But when he graduated from Brandeis University in 1988, there were few jobs available in the financial industry.
Nevertheless, the West Orange resident told NJ Jewish News, he was able to combine his love of Wall Street with his “always being a newspaper guy.” As a special writer for the Wall Street Journal, where he has worked since 1996, he writes about investing and business topics.
In November, Penguin Press published his book The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters. It is the story of the controversial technology of extracting natural gas from underground shale deposits, a practice whose environmental impact has been hotly debated. Zuckerman will hold a reading of his book at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood on Jan. 30.
He discussed his work in a Dec. 19 phone interview.
NJJN: What made you want to write about fracking?
Zuckerman: A couple of years ago I realized that the most important business topic is the revolution in energy production. I look for positive stories, and I think this is generally a positive story, despite the controversy. I like interesting characters, and it struck me there is probably no one more interesting than these great wildcatters who are making and losing billions and are changing our nation’s economy and geopolitics. The import of what they are doing is really dramatic.
NJJN: Many environmentalists call fracking a nightmare. They say it unleashes vast amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere and speeds up global warming, that it creates large quantities of toxic water, and that the underground drilling involved in extracting gas can cause earthquakes. How do you answer such criticisms?
Zuckerman: Those are three big concerns. Both sides really overstate the arguments. Methane does get into the water, and if you light a match it explodes. The problem is, that has nothing to do with fracking. In various parts of the country, methane gets into the water naturally.
Some of the chemicals the frackers pump into the ground are toxic, and you don't want to be ingesting them. But if you talk to objective scientists, they say that is really unlikely to happen. You are more likely to win the lottery than to have chemicals get into the water table from fracking. One in 10 wells aren't sealed well, and they have to go back and improve the sealing. So the industry understates the risk and overstates how safe it is.
NJJN: How about the allegation that methane gas speeds up global warming?
Zuckerman: If you care about global warming you are going to love fracking. Fracking is really good for the environment. Because of fracking we have shifted from coal, and our carbon emissions are down considerably.
NJJN: Would it not be safer for the environment to focus on developing wind and solar power?
Zuckerman: Wind and solar power are not ready. If we want to spend a lot more money we could build an infrastructure for wind, like Germany is doing. My hope is that fracking will provide us with a window for doing research so we can get alternatives down the road. There is no way that wind and solar can meet the energy needs of this country just yet. But even the frackers don't want to keep this addiction to fossil fuels. It is not healthy for anyone, but we don’t have much of a choice right now.
NJJN: Are you totally comfortable with fracking?
Zuckerman: There is always a risk. Methane leakage is my biggest worry. My hope is they can improve on controlling the amount being leaked.
NJJN: Do you see any “Jewish” component in this argument?
Zuckerman: I do. We are moving toward energy independence so we won't have to care what oil producers in the Middle East think going forward. It gives America more leeway in geopolitics.
NJJN: There are some 30 Jewish summer camps in Pennsylvania on land where there has been or will be fracking. Does that concern you?
Zuckerman: My 11-year-old son goes to one, Camp Nesher [in Lakewood, Pa.]. I think it is a generally safe process.
NJJN: Do you see the process of fracking continuing to grow?
Zuckerman: In some towns where they oppose fracking there are no signs of it starting soon. But I think we are coming to a compromise with the environmentalists and the producers and the government for more regulations and better testing and holding the gas companies’ feet to the fire.
What disturbs me is there are very few centrists left in this country. People either think fracking is poisonous or they say “drill, baby, drill” like the oil and gas companies do. The answer is somewhere in the middle, where it can be done but isn’t being done yet safely.