Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World
*Disclaimer – I was sent a free ARC of this book for review purposes. I then used it as a model for a classroom assignment in which students were asked to write a 5 paragraph rationale for using their chosen book in a classroom setting. In their rationale, students were asked to first address the fears that people might have about incorporating their book into the curriculum – why might it be challenged? Then they needed to address the inherent value their book had that made it worthy of being incorporated into the classroom. Next, they were asked to detail what class it was appropriate for and how it could be used. Then they needed to research precedent – were other teachers, book clubs, etc. using their book? How? Finally, they needed to research what other critics were saying about their book. (This assignment was adapted from Beyond Grammar: Language, Power and the Classroom by Mary R. Harmon and Marilyn J. Wilson) This is the rationale I wrote as an example for them, using Saudi America as my chosen book.
Saudi America by Bethany McLean is destined to be a controversial book. Bethany’s research takes aim at the promise that Hydraulic Fracturing, aka fracking, will create energy independence for the U.S.A. and make the United States a “net exporter” of gas and oil within the decade increasing our economy and global clout once again. McLean’s research questions these claims and reveals that natural gas is subject to the same oil based boom and bust cycles that have ravaged the American economy for centuries. In an area heavily beholden to oil and gas company Anadarko, I can imagine this book being immediately challenged were it to be introduced to our curriculum. The picture it paints of fracking as a global enterprise is one built on deceit and riddled with fraud. In the case of Aubrey McClendon, the book charts his personal boom and bust cycles and tallies up the multiple lies he used to convince investors to keep him afloat during the many busts his business faced, including lying about the amount of recoverable gas and oil in each plot of land he asked them to lease, thus artificially increasing their expected return on investment. “For instance, Chesapeake reported 2.7 billion in ‘barrels of oil equivalent’ to the SEC, but 13.4 billion to investors” (56). In addition, he is credited with starting the “Coal is filthy” campaign to encourage the U.S. to switch from coal to natural gas power plants, while simultaneously helping push legislation that exempted frackers from having to disclose the chemicals they use to fracture each well (35). Last, the book discusses the intricate dance the fracking industry does to keep oil and gas prices high enough to lure investors, yet low enough to stave off a more rapid transition to renewable energy sources (60). The portrait McLean paints threatens the carefully crafted image of fracking companies like Anadarko, and reminds consumers and investors that despite the apparent boom, only a single fracking company has managed to show a return, or create a profit.
Despite the threat this book poses to the fracking industry, it holds significant value for students interested in studying American energy policy or business. In addition to covering critical, current topics affecting the US and the globe, this book is also brief (134 pages), engaging and written in language than most people can understand, taking complex business and geopolitical concepts and explaining them in plain English designed to draw outsiders into the Wild West of the fracking revolution. The second half of the book explores the global impacts of America’s energy policies, especially those surrounding oil and gas. Taking a detailed look at the geopolitical implications of American energy independence within the current context of Middle Eastern politics, President Trump’s administration and Climate Change, it becomes immediately clear that America is in desperate need of an overarching energy policy to guide us into and through the 22nd century.
Saudi America is appropriate for two areas of study. One could be implemented at numerous high schools across America, and that is its use in a business class as a case study in American industrial business practices. The first half of the book focuses on the economic and business history of fracking in the U.S.A. While it examines several companies and their practices, it focuses on fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon as a case study to show the “wildcatting” Wild West tactics being used by frackers to drum up large investments despite running a net loss business. “The most vital ingredient in fracking isn’t chemicals, but capital, with companies relying on Wall Street’s willingness to fund them. If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom” (17). Fracking, it turns out, is not a business built on profits, but on venture capitalism. It’s a house of cards that seems ready to tumble. Business students reading this section would be exposed to both exemplary business practices as well as risky, harmful and predatory practices, making this book an excellent, engaging book for use in business courses. It offers multiple opportunities for in-depth discussion about ethical business practices, the consequences and benefits of risk taking in business as well as the skills required to make it big in American industry. Quotes such as, “He was going to bet the farm, and if he lost, he was going to bet the farm again. Most of us, if we get the farm, we don’t want to lose it! He didn’t have a regulator” (36) could be used to spark conversations about best business practices, the benefits and consequences of risk taking in business, and the ethics and responsibilities of doing business with other people’s money. It can also spark conversations about the responsibility businesses have to the areas where they operate, such as Sweetwater, Ohio which spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to upgrade their courthouse and hospital in preparation for the fracking boom McClendon promised was coming (48), or the communities throughout the U.S. that have seen their crime rates grow.
The second half of this book is an excellent resource for schools with an energy focus program. This portion of the book discusses the many additional industries that have been created as a result of the fracking industry success; from sand mining in Wisconsin (87) to equipment manufacturing (48) and petro-chemical refinement and production facilities (116). However, it balances this “good news” with a report from Goldman Sachs estimating that, “because of the decline rates of fracked wells, by 2023, it will cost $58 billion in capital investment just to hold production flat.” Which is to say that without willing investors, the fracking revolution will dry up, after all, despite the boom, fracking companies have yet to show any profit whatsoever. The book then shifts its focus to Global energy policy, exploring Saudi Arabia’s shift away from oil and gas, Russia’s oil and gas fueled power plays around the globe, and the U.S.A’s $50 billion a year military expenditures to protect middle eastern oil shipping lanes from our competitors. The final chapter reveals that the U.S.A. is losing the green energy race due to our focus on expanding natural gas and defending or even reviving coal based power. The book takes aim at America’s lack of a coherent energy policy that will take us safely into and through the 22nd century. It paints us as global outliers in our fight to maintain a fossil fuel based economy while China and even Saudi Arabia move their nations away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. The world is marching on, while the U.S.A. digs its heels into the same sticky tar sands that trapped the dinosaurs so long ago.
There is no precedent for using this book in a classroom setting, as the book’s official publication date was September 11th, 2018. However, there are numerous lessons available for high school students regarding the fraught energy based relationship between the U.S.A. and Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern nations. These lessons are intended primarily for a world history or social studies class, but could be adapted to an American energy course. In addition, there is a lesson called “Fuel for Debate: Examining the Natural Gas Fracking Controversy” by the New York Times Learning Network which ties into many of the themes present in Saudi America and which could be used to supplement the teaching of this book and bring in additional perspectives on the topics and issues presented.
Critics agree that this is a great read for the business minded. The Houston Press describes the book as digging, “deep into the cycles of boom and bust that have plagued the American oil industry for the past decade, from the financial wizardry and mysterious death of fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon, to the investors who are questioning the very economics of shale itself.” and says, “Saudi America tells a remarkable story that will persuade you to think about the power of oil in a new way.” Kirkus states, “The business-minded should appreciate the focus and precision of this brisk overview…” Conservative reviewer, “TheVoiceOfOma” writes, “Because of the author’s association with far left interests, I scrutinized her information very carefully. I wondered if she might have a political agenda in the presentation of her facts… The book is informative and raises many questions that need to be answered about the future use and supply of energy, whether fossil fuel or renewable.” Reviewers agree that Saudi America is valuable for the questions it raises and the overview it gives into an industry that has promised so much, and returned so little.