Infrastructure & Environment

California Has a Lot of Fracking but Only a Little Oil

The recent discovery that the state has 96% less recoverable oil than previously thought may have helped the case for regulating instead of banning fracking.
by | August 2014
Fracking involves pumping water combined with sand and chemicals at high pressure to crack shale rock and release natural gas and oil.
Fracking involves pumping water combined with sand and chemicals at high pressure to crack shale rock and release natural gas and oil. AP/Richard Vogel
 

In California, the idea of a vast new source of oil -- some estimates predicted that the amount in the state’s massive Monterey Formation could exceed even North Dakota’s Bakken fields -- had some people dreaming of a gold rush for fracking. But the Energy Information Administration in May dashed many of those dreams when it dramatically lowered its estimates of recoverable oil in California by 96 percent.

But that diminished potential hasn’t dampened plans for fracking in the Golden State. In fact, less than two weeks after the revised estimate was released, a bill to place a moratorium on fracking until the state established firm regulations was rejected by the California Senate, which failed to generate a unified voting bloc even among Democrats. “We did the happy dance here in my office when we saw the estimate marked down by 96 percent,” says Sen. Holly Mitchell, a lead sponsor. “[But] that new piece of fact-based information didn’t appear to have any impact, at least based on the arguments we had on the floor.”

The Monterey is a 1,750-square-mile formation of mostly underground shale rock in central California. Official estimates of recoverable oil through hydraulic fracturing were initially pegged at 13.7 billion barrels. But because the shale deposits are so unevenly layered from generations of heavy seismic activity, existing technology can yield only about 600 million barrels.

Fracking involves pumping water combined with sand and chemicals at high pressure to crack shale rock and release natural gas and oil. Critics worry the practice poses risks to drinking water, and investigations by the press and academics have found cases of confirmed pollution in other states. Fracking supporters in California note that the practice has been taking place there since the 1950s without confirmed instances of groundwater contamination.

But unlike other states, California doesn’t yet have specific regulations governing fracking. In fact, the state didn’t even track the number of fracking wells until this year. A law passed in 2013, however, requires regulators to complete a study on potential risks of fracking and to put in place regulations that require disclosure of the chemicals used. The law also sets up procedures for water testing should a property owner request it.

The majority of oil and gas extracted in California, the third-biggest oil producer in the country, comes from Kern County, represented by state Sen. Andy Vidak, who says the moratorium would’ve cost jobs -- “thousands and thousands” of jobs. Vidak says the potential in Kern County and across the Monterey is huge, even with the lower estimate, because the same technological improvements that made fracking widespread will continue.

It’s likely that California regulators will come up with industry rules before any moratorium is put in place. That’s especially true given that Gov. Jerry Brown and some other state Democratic leaders support fracking. In fact, the downgrade in estimated reserves has actually allayed some concerns about California becoming overrun with fracking operations, says Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Californians are also happy to let the industry go about its business safely as long as they believe regulators have put the right guidelines in place, he says. “California is a state that, even though nationally we are looked at as environmental leaders, has always taken a ‘regulate but don’t ban’ position on the environment.”

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Infrastructure & Environment