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Editorial: Though there are no rigs left, Barnett Shale’s revolution will go on

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And then there were none.

Drilling activity in the once muscular Barnett Shale has disappeared. To its amazement, industry publication RigData recently reported that it couldn’t find any active rigs in the expansive North Texas natural gas field. Nada.

No new wells being drilled in the birthplace of hydraulic fracturing?

Just eight years ago, drilling in the Barnett Shale peaked at over 200 rigs, and the 25-county region in North Texas was rolling in cash. Then, in the resulting glut, natural gas prices nose-dived and drillers found more productive fields elsewhere.

Ah, such irony. George Mitchell, the late wildcatting legend, put the Barnett Shale field on the map when he combined hydraulic fracturing techniques with horizontal drilling to access hard-to-reach natural gas. The innovation proved to be as groundbreaking to natural gas exploration as the commercialization of the integrated circuit was to electronics.

Mitchell’s breakthrough created thousands of jobs, fueled American manufacturing, and revived U.S. oil and gas production. It also expanded natural gas exports and reduced carbon dioxide emissions as utilities turned away from coal and toward natural gas to fire up generating plants.

And it brought us pockets of new wealth. A new generation of philanthropists, such as billionaire Trevor Rees-Jones, owe their fortune to the Barnett Shale. And if you haven’t been to booming Burleson lately, hold on to your hat: They have sushi.

Yes, the Barnett Shale also brought us challenges: Natural gas infrastructure may fall into disuse. Once flush wildcatters who bet the farm on the Barnett Shale now struggle for survival. Wastewater injection wells are widely suspected to be linked to the region’s increase in earthquakes.

Through it all, the Barnett Shale’s most lasting legacy is its profound impact on global geopolitics. Once-powerful OPEC has lost its clout. The Saudis are investing in solar. The United States is an oil exporter.

But this is not an obituary for the Barnett Shale. Though new exploration has dried up, existing operations are still producing. In January, the field accounted for 16.2 percent of Texas’ natural gas production, 4.5 percent of the country’s supply. Solar, wind and other alternative energy sources are ascending as technologies, but the Barnett Shale still retains a major role in America’s energy transition.

And in the energy industry, nothing is forever. In the Barnett Shale’s heyday, natural gas prices rose above $15 per million British thermal units. Now, it’s barely above $2. A protracted rise in oil prices could revive the Barnett Shale.

Even if it doesn’t, the revolution sparked by the Barnett Shale will continue.

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