The Boom, by Russell Gold

In his new book, Russell Gold discusses the natural gas industry as a possible answer to our fossil fuel addicted society.

Russell Gold's story starts millions of years ago, with the crash of tectonic plates creating the Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges and the Cretaceous inland sea in between. He's interested in the water's zooplankton, which multiplied briskly, died off and became trapped and baked in shale. We know these remains as natural gas and the way to tap into them as fracking.

The Boom is a detailed account of the natural gas industry that is reshaping the energy landscape. It's part history, part technology primer, part legal analysis and part environmental review. The author, an energy reporter with The Wall Street Journal, personalizes the story by weaving in an account of how his parents traded a patch of bucolic bliss in Pennsylvania for a chance to make money by allowing the land underneath their farm to be fracked.

After the plankton, we fast-forward to the modern era with its thirst for energy sources to power the industrial revolution. Oil pioneers knew of the gas trapped in rock from the early days of exploration, but didn't know how to get at it. Over the years, many schemes were launched involving drastic measures such as nitroglycerin and nuclear blasts. But none proved to be commercially viable until the early 1980s when fracking gel — compounds created with gelling agents such as polymers and gums, which are used to help pry open the rocks — started showing promise.

Then petroleum engineer Nick Steinsberger kick-started things in the late 1990s when he proposed using pressurized water to crack open the Barnett shale in Texas. The subterranean riches began to flow and with them came lawsuits and legislation, huge fortunes and hedge funds, pitfalls and protests, all of which are chronicled in an engaging fashion.

Gold devotes much space to the risk-takers who helped create the industry, with particular emphasis on the wheeling and dealings of George Mitchell, who believed in hydraulic fracking and made billions applying it.

Yes, there have been polluted wells, dead trees, floating fish and the smell of diesel. And Gold gives due consideration to the environmental costs of fracking, interviewing landowners who regret leasing their land. But he also spends considerable time on the benefits, one of which gives environmentalists and capitalists something to agree on — natural gas is cleaner than coal. And due to fracking, the US has become less dependent on foreign energy.

The book is balanced in its approach, with Gold refusing to take sides about a controversial practice. So anyone looking for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down will be sorely disappointed. The author ends by saying it might be wise to think of natural gas as methadone for a society addicted to fossil fuel. At least he hopes it will buy some time for markets, governments and technology to come together to get it right on the alternative sources of fuel we will need when the stores run out.