Below us is California’s Kern County and more than a century of oil exploration — from the gushers of the 1800s to today’s less robust reality. It’s a spider web of dirt roads, drilling rigs, pump jacks, pipes and boilers.
At least I’m pretty sure that’s what’s below us. The air quality is so bad that the San Joaquin Valley we’re flying over looks like the blurred work of an impressionist painter. Our view is smudged by stubborn smog that’s refused to budge for days.
It’s a perfect metaphor for trying to understand the future of oil and gas production in California, which is why we’ve taken flight in the first place.
For years, the biggest talk in California’s energy industry has been about hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and whether or not the method of pumping sand, chemicals and water at very high pressure to release trapped hydrocarbons will kick off a boom comparable to surging North Dakota.
There was a time, just a few years ago, that most news reports deemed a shale oil boom inevitable in California. But now, it’s not looking like such a sure thing after all.
In order to understand California’s future, a little history lesson helps. Oil was first discovered here by Native Americans. But it wasn’t until the 1890s and the beginning of the 1900s that drilling revealed some of the biggest (and still active) oil fields in the Ventura-Santa Barbara coast area, the Los Angeles Basin and the San Joaquin Valley.
California became the nation’s biggest oil producer, contributing 40 percent to the country’s supply in 1914. By 1940 that had fallen to only 17 percent. But production chugged upward, even as supply came from elsewhere, until the state hit its peak – just over a million barrels of oil a day — in 1985.
Today, production is 50 percent of what it was in the ‘80s and California is a distant third to Texas and North Dakota.
Technology, though, has helped slow the slide. In order to squeeze the last drops out of very old oil fields or less productive wells in the state, industry has relied on well stimulation techniques, such as fracking and acidizing.
Most people have heard of fracking because it’s been combined with horizontal drilling to access hard-to-reach deposits of oil and gas trapped in shale formations. High-volume fracking and horizontal drilling have contributed to a drilling frenzy in states like Texas, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, among others.
Many thought California would be part of the boom.
In 2011, the Energy Information Administration all but declared another gold rush in California by proclaiming that the Monterey shale formation and its equivalents, which lie under most of south and central California, held 15.4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. To put that number in perspective, that would mean 64 percent of the estimated reserve of shale oil in the lower 48. So, essentially, a colossal pile of black gold.
But not everyone bought the hype, including J. David Hughes, a geoscientist and fellow at Post Carbon Institute, who wrote the report “Drilling California: A Reality Check on the Monterey Shale.” And Hughes will likely get the pleasure of saying “I told you so.” Just three years after declaring that there was 15.4 billion barrels of oil, the EIA downgraded its estimate to 600 million barrels, slashing the number by 96 percent.
What went wrong? What proved successful in North Dakota’s Bakken shale and Texas’ Eagle Ford shale, hasn’t translated to California’s Monterey shale, which Hughes says has been structurally fragmented. The geology is “folded, faulted, and shattered at the microlevel,” he says.
All that fragmentation has meant that oil has seeped from some Monterey shale source rock into other reservoirs that have already been drilled for decades and the formation itself contains not just “tight oil” trapped in rocks like the Bakken and Eagle Ford but also convention reservoirs, which have already been heavily drilled.
Right now it looks unlikely that fracking, or similar techniques, will unleash a bounty here anytime soon, barring a technological breakthrough we can’t see yet, says Hughes. The industry has been trying for decades with not much to show for it. “Fracking and acidizing have been tried extensively on Monterey shale wells, yet the data do not show any significant increase in well productivity or likely cumulative oil recovery for recent wells,” wrote Hughes in his “Drilling California” Report.
“Geology beats technology every time,” he says. “In the final analysis geology always wins.”
Where fracking has unleashed a boom elsewhere, in California it has merely prolonged a waning industry. John Kemp, a market analysis for Reuters, writes in a recent column that, “the shale revolution has bypassed the state.”
But not for lack of trying.
Instead of unlocking the chimerical bounty of the Monterey shale’s tight oil, fracking in California has been more effective at tapping more conventional reserves and increasing recovery on lagging wells. It’s a useful tool for industry — as well as a concern for environmental and health groups worried about air and water pollution, among other risks.
Today 20 percent of production in California comes from fracked wells. And half of new wells being drilled in the state are also being fracked. The vast majority of these wells are in the San Joaquin Valley, mostly western Kern County, which may suffer a blow as the market price of a barrel of oil has plummeted 60 percent since June.
“California’s oil industry is being hit harder than any other state by falling prices because of the comparatively poor quality of its crude and its aging fields,” explains Kemp. “California’s high-cost and low-productivity oil industry has always been vulnerable to falling prices.”
The market crash will mostly impact new wells, and not current production. Although, Hughes says, the price fall could mean that companies may cease production on some “stripper wells,” which are marginal wells that yield 15 barrels or less a day. As of 2009, California had more than 30,000 stripper wells, and the number was climbing fast.
Already the price plunge is having a negative effect. One of the indicators used to assess activity in oilfields is how many rigs are currently being used. The rig count for California in mid-January had fallen by more than half compared to a month before.
Barring steep surges in oil prices to more than $100 a barrel, one of the only other things that could improve the economic prospects of California’s oil and gas industry would be legislative action in Washington. Congress could repeal the Jones Act requiring the use of US-flagged tankers, thereby lowering shipping costs of crude between or from US ports. It could also lift the ban on US crude exports, which would increase market demand by opening access to higher-priced markets around the Pacific.
Right now, the oil industry in California faces the reality of tricky geology and tough economics, but that’s not all it’s up against. There is also growing public outcry as drilling rigs have been erected next to schools, in National Forests, in urban and suburban neighborhoods, along prized beaches, and in some of the country’s most economically productive farmland.
In the last few years a concerted effort of environmental and community groups has focused on pushing the legislature to enact statewide and local moratoria on fracking, but so far few have arrived.
Instead, California has opted to regulate the practice and agreed to conduct some studies to assess the potential environmental impacts. (Although oddly the state has written its new regulations, which go into effect in July, before the scientific studies and Environmental Impact Report have been completed.)
This has ignited more activity at the local level. Both Santa Cruz County and Mendocino County banned fracking last year, although neither are active areas of the oil industry — victories, however symbolic.San Benito County, however, also voted in November to ban fracking and other “high intensity” oil production methods as it was set to be the site of potentially hundreds of new wells for an oil recovery project using cyclic steaming, a kind of enhanced recovery technique where the rock is heated in order to move viscous oil.
In Santa Barbara County, which has an active oil industry, environmental groups tried to pass a ballot measure similar to San Benito, but the measure was defeated after the industry spent $7 million during the lead-up to the election.
In Los Angeles, where oil production still occurs in densely packed urban neighborhoods, city council members are pushing for a moratorium or severe controls despite threats of a lawsuit from the Western States Petroleum Association (which did not return calls for this story).
On February 7, activists will gather in Brown’s hometown of Oakland for the March for Real Climate Leadership, demanding Brown put an end to fracking in California. The Governor has remained a defender of fracking despite his push for more renewable energy and calls for action to combat climate change.
And this is what drives some of those involved in the fracking fight in California. Rebecca Claassen, who helped lead Santa Barbara’s attempt at a ban told me, “I felt inspired to take action based on thinking about what the planet needs, not just what we think is politically feasible.”
It’s possible that with enough pressure, what’s politically feasible in California will begin to change as it has in Denton, Texas, and the state of New York where fracking bans are now in place despite outcries from industry. And it’s possible that a perfect storm of geology, economics and people power will keep most of the Monterey’s oil locked. But for now, it’s too soon to tell.