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Government as Font of Knowledge

February 3, 2012

The idea that government is the font of knowledge is now being promoted with respect to energy development. It’s being claimed that “every significant energy technology [development] since World War II” was due to government support, including gas turbines, nuclear power and fracking.

It’s being claimed that the development of fracking was really due to the government – and not the private sector. This claim was even inferred in the State of the Union Address.

Is the claim true?

While the claim is based on the work of the government in the 1970s, fracking actually dates back, in a crude form, to the late 1800s.

The first fracking used nitroglycerin to literally fracture the rocks and substances that prevented the free flow of oil. Quite a few people were killed when the nitroglycerin exploded unexpectedly.

“In 1864, Colonel E. A. L. Roberts applied for a patent to increase well production using explosives in connection with superincumbent fluid tamping.” (Quote from article by Carollee Michener, available at

This was the beginning of the quest to use pressure and fluids to free hydrocarbons from rock, and happened long before there was a Department of Energy.

In the 1930s, acid was injected into wells to stimulate the flow of oil. Floyd Farris of Amoco performed a study about the pressures used with the various substances and conceived of what we now refer to as hydraulic fracking.

The first experiment of “Hydrafrac” was in 1947.

In 1949, a patent was issued to Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company for the new Hydrafrac process.

By the 1950s, 3,000 fracking jobs were done each month, extending for long periods during the year.

The development of various fluids and propping agents also occurred after WWII. Gelled crude oil and gelled kerosene were used, but then, by the mid-1950s, crude itself was used to achieve less friction.

During these early years, the relationship between the friction of fluids and the amounts of sand used for propping open the fractures became the focus of experimentation. When water was used in 1953 as the fluid of choice, a number of patents were issued for gelling agents.

In 1962, a patent was issued for using guar cross linked by borate to Loyd Kern of Arco.

In 1964, another patent was issued to Tom Perkins for a borate gel breaker.

Innovations continued with the use of surfactants, stabilizing agents, foams and alcohol.

There was also the parallel development of propping agents and high pressure pumps. The larger the quantities of propping agents used in fracking, the higher the required pressure.

There was also the development of programs by the mid-1960s for designing the fracking operation – choosing the right proppant, the right fluids, the right pressures and the right volumes. Khristianovic, and Zheltov (1955), Perkins and Kern (1961), and Geertsma and de Klerk (1969) are mentioned as the early adopters of computers for this purpose.

Subsequently, more powerful computers have allowed highly improved programs for designing a fracking operation.

The history of fracking is replete with the contributions of private companies and individuals.

A similar history can be shown for horizontal drilling, without government involvement.

Early discussions about horizontal drilling occurred in the 1920s. Reportedly, the first horizontal well was drilled in 1929. John Eastman and George Failing performed directional drilling in 1934. Elf Aquitaine, the French Company, began drilling horizontal wells in 1980, and BP used horizontal drilling in Prudhoe Bay in the mid-1980s.

Apparently, there was some work done by the government beginning in the 1970s, long after a century of development by private entities.

Tax breaks may have played a role in the 1980s and ‘90s. Unlike Solyndra (solar) and Ener1 (batteries), tax payers benefitted from any possible tax breaks received by the oil and gas industry for the development of fracking.

It’s true that some fracking pumps after WWII used surplus Allison aircraft engines, and perhaps that can be described as government support.

It’s possible to trace many products in use today to the government, but that doesn’t mean the government was instrumental in their development. Gas Turbines are one such product.

The government was instrumental in developing the jet engine for aircraft usage. GE and United Technologies both produced these engines and then, started improving on the original design.

GE went further, and developed the land-based gas turbine. Though its technology can be traced to the government through the jet engine, it was GE that invested millions of dollars in developing the gas turbine that’s now used for power generation and other applications, such as pipeline pumping.

To claim that the government was instrumental in the development of fracking, horizontal drilling, or even the land-based gas turbine, is a stretch, to say the least.


Post Script:

The Breakthrough Institute that touts the role of government, and may be the source of the comments in the State of the Union Address, is described in the Washington Post as “an Oakland-based, nonpartisan public policy think tank focused on progressive politics”.

I’m not sure how a think-tank focused on “progressive politics” can be called “non-political”.


Sources: Center for Energy Commerce; Breakthrough Institute; Society of Petroleum Engineers; Middle East Technical University; General Electric Company.

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