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Even Booms Have Limits
Is California's Monterey Shale Just a Pipe Dream?

California’s Monterey shale formation has 96 percent less recoverable oil than previously estimated, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). There’s plenty of oil down in the shale rock formation, but unlike Texas’s Eagle Ford formation, or North Dakota’s Bakken, it’s “crunched,” or contorted by the Golden State’s seismic activity. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Just 600 million barrels of oil can be extracted with existing technology, far below the 13.7 billion barrels once thought recoverable from the jumbled layers of subterranean rock spread across much of Central California, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. […]

The energy agency said the earlier estimate of recoverable oil, issued in 2011 by an independent firm under contract with the government, broadly assumed that deposits in the Monterey Shale formation were as easily recoverable as those found in shale formations elsewhere. […]

The problem lies with the geology of the Monterey Shale, a 1,750-mile formation running down the center of California roughly from Sacramento to the Los Angeles basin and including some coastal regions.

Unlike heavily fracked shale deposits in North Dakota and Texas, which are relatively even and layered like a cake, Monterey Shale has been folded and shattered by seismic activity, with the oil found at deeper strata.

California’s geology has long been a concern for oil and gas drillers, but the EIA nonetheless believed, until recently, that new technologies and ever more efficient drilling techniques could crack the undulating rock layers. But it looks like California’s shale dreams will be dashed—or at least tempered—by troublesome geology, in much as other countries’ ambitions have been.

That’s a shame for the western state; the oil windfall could have been a major boon to its struggling economy.

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  • Thirdsyphon

    This isn’t California’s first run-in with uncooperative geology, and it’s (horribly) unlikely to be its last. The politics around this issue were bound to be difficult, and in the end it’s unlikely that California would have allowed much extraction to take place. In that sense, the downgrade can be seen as nature letting California off the hook.

    There’s no shortage of locations around the country where both the politics and the geology are incredibly favorable to extraction by fracking, and energy companies are (quite rightly) focusing their efforts and investment dollars on those locations rather than on places like California and New York, where the geology is trickier and where the electorate doesn’t want them fracking anyway.

  • Fat_Man

    The rocks in California that we should worry about are the ones in the politicians heads.

  • Boritz

    A god-send to the leave-it-in-the-ground greens.

  • Andrew Allison

    Hmmm, seems as though the formation has already been fracked, by seismic activity.

  • AllanDale
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I remind everyone that a decade ago they were saying that shale oil was unrecoverable. So what if it’s not in nice neat layers like a cake, drillers can now send their drills every which way and follow the contours of the shale to be fracked. It’s possible that the frequent earthquakes in California could even be used to help in the fracturing of the shale to release the oil.

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