A biopicworthy corporate scandal paired with a recent financial history of the fracking industry.
The incendiary title would seem to promise another op-ed on the controversial resource-extraction technique. But as in her previous works, Vanity Fair contributing editor McLean (Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants, 2015, etc.), an investigative journalist best-known for her coverage of the Enron scandal, focuses on the staggering corporate scandals that the industry has produced along with its billions of barrels of oil. In the first half of the book, she singles out the rise and fall of colorful, hubristic entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon, an early fracking promoter and “land man” who successfully raised and lost billions of dollars by leasing the drilling rights to properties atop the shales where extraction took place. The second half of the book uses McClendon’s story to inform an overview of the “fracking revolution,” the author's term for the boom in domestic energy due to American oil production that could rival that of Saudi Arabia. Notably lacking is a clear, technical explanation of fracking—though maps of the shales are helpful—and McLean writes to an audience familiar with the jargon of industry and finance. All but overlooking the environmental impact of the extraction method, the author tracks the billions of dollars made, invested, and lost in corporate fracking transactions, most of them an order of magnitude or so above the common experience. For the most part, she leaves readers to interpret the significance of these figures and to assemble a throughline of meaning from the accumulation of factual records, which hardly improves the book’s scant aesthetic dimensions. Occasional dramatic interest in this straightforward financial portrait comes from the sheer scale of the fiscal irresponsibility depicted and the anxiety of McClendon’s outsized wins, losses, and incredible debt.
The business-minded should appreciate the focus and precision of this brisk overview, while readers in search of more informative conceptual arguments about the industry and its geopolitical implications should look elsewhere.