Since the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar company that received $535 million in federal loan guarantees, many have concluded that government efforts to promote energy technologies are doomed to fail. Critics cite the abandoned synthetic fuels program, attempts to capture carbon pollution from coal plants and next-generation nuclear reactors as further proof of this conclusion.
Many often point to the shale gas revolution as evidence that the private sector, in response to market forces, is better than government bureaucrats at picking technological winners. It’s a compelling story, one that pits inventive entrepreneurs against slow-moving technocrats and self-dealing politicians.
The problem is, it isn’t true.
The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.
This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.