Last year, a study commissioned by INTEK Inc. estimated that the 1,750 square mile Monterey Shale Formation in Southern and Central California holds approximately 64 percent of the total shale reserves that are technically recoverable within the contiguous United States. Equivalent to as much as five years of US oil imports, that’s big news for the State of California. With an ailing economy, a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, and America’s highest rate of poverty, California may find the promise of 2.8 million jobs and $24.6 billion in state and local taxes by 2020 particularly tempting, especially considering the recent success of other states that have embraced hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
In North Dakota fracking has proven highly lucrative; exploitation of massive shale reserves there has brought down the unemployment rate to 3.2 percent and brought in a significant number of new companies. North Dakota now ranks second in America for oil production, just behind Texas. In recent years, sleepy towns have been turned into frenzied hotbeds of newly claimed wealth. Quoted in a Mother Jones article, an industry worker likened the situation to the “Wild F*cking West.”
But those oil reserves may prove to be a mixed blessing. While the scientific picture is still hazy, there are certainly risks of long-term environmental damage, despite protestations to the contrary by the mining industry. Nevertheless, it seems that states such as North Dakota are prepared to take the risk, putting the prospect of prosperity ahead of environmental caution.
California may choose not to follow in North Dakota’s footsteps. Significant opposition from a large constituency of environmentalists has already stymied the pro-fracking camp. On April 8, a federal district court judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management acted illegally by leasing 2,700 acres of land in Monterey and Fresno counties to oil and gas drillers without consideration for the environmental impacts of fracking. On April 12, Berkeley Law released a report outlining wastewater and potential water quality impacts, ultimately recommending an increase in both the stringency and number of regulatory measures.
Concerns regarding fracking’s ability to trigger earthquakes will not fall on deaf ears, especially in a notoriously seismic state like California. Other difficulties for fracking constituency lie outside politics. The geological nature of the Monterey formation—highly faulted and fragmented—makes fracking’s horizontal drilling particularly difficult. In fact, no successful long-term extraction has been made to date on the Monterey formation.
Even with unfriendly political and topological landscapes and despite Governor Jerry Brown’s explicit call for tighter regulation, oil companies show no signs of wavering in their determination to bring fracking to the Monterey Shale Formation. With an estimated 15.42 billion barrels of oil at stake, it is not hard to see why.
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