More recently, the natural gas and petroleum industries altogether accounted for about $2.8 billion in federal energy subsidies in the 2010 fiscal year and about $14.7 billion went to renewable energies, the Department of Energy found. The figures include both direct expenditures and tax credits.
Congress passed a huge tax break in 1980 specifically to encourage unconventional natural gas drilling, noted Alex Trembath, a researcher at the Breakthrough Institute, a California nonprofit that supports new ways of thinking about energy and the environment. Trembath said that the Department of Energy invested about $137 million in gas research over three decades, and that the federal tax credit for drillers amounted to $10 billion between 1980 and 2002.
The work wasn't all industry or all government, but both.
One step at a time, the problems of shale drilling were solved. Crawley said Energy Department researchers processed drilling data on supercomputers at a federal lab. Later, technology created to track sounds of Russian submarines during the Cold War was repurposed to help the industry use sound to get a 3-D picture of shale deposits and track exactly where a drill bit was, thousands of feet underground.
"It was a lot of pieces of technology that the industry thought would help them. Some worked out, some didn't," Crawley said.
Renewable energy has had similar fits and starts, plagued by the costs and complexities of developing technology, and markets for it.
The idea that the government can help industry achieve advances that the private sector can't or won't has been a central contention of the presidential election. President Barack Obama's comment this summer that Republicans seized on -- "If you've got a business -- you didn't build that" -- was part of broader comments about infrastructure, education and other public spending that indirectly helps businesses.
Both Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney tout the benefits of shale gas, but they differ over the government's role in subsidizing energy research. Obama has suggested continued funding for renewable energy but also eliminating billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas companies. Romney calls that an unhealthy obsession with green jobs -- and has vowed to cut wind power subsidies, yet keep federal support for ethanol.
But the fracking pioneers point out that it's impossible to predict how and when research will pay off.
"It wouldn't be research if you already knew that it was going to be effective," said Crawley.
Steward and others said today's energy challenge is similar to what they faced: a need to find future sources of energy.
"I was concerned about my kids and grandkids. I didn't want my kids sitting out there without energy," Steward said.
Terry Engelder, a Penn State University geologist known for his enthusiastic support for gas drilling, said the story of how shale gas went from longshot to head of the pack -- and how long that took -- shows that serious support for renewable energy research makes sense, too.
"These renewables have a huge upside," Engelder said. "In my view, the subsidies are really very appropriate."
Steward is proud of the shale boom, too, but warned that it won't last forever.
"Don't be fooled by this. We've got to have a replacement" for shale gas, he said