Although it has been used in unregulated obscurity for decades in California, the drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing — you know it as "fracking" — has rather suddenly emerged as one of the top issues in Sacramento this year.

To be sure, part of that newfound focus can be attributed to the actor Matt Damon and his recent film "Promised Land" that portrays environmental damage done by fracking in Pennsylvania. But the driving reason why fracking is taking center stage in California this year can be found not in a Hollywood screenplay but in the plain language of an industry blog that covers the shale oil and gas industry.

"The Monterey Shale formation is currently producing oil and natural gas and is an emerging shale play," declares the blog OilShaleGas.com. "Counties include Kern County, Ventura County, Monterey County and Santa Barbara County." The blog cites massive investments in exploration undertaken by Venoco and includes quotes from CEO Tim Marquez: "We were pleased to see the recent U.S. Energy Information Administration's assessment of emerging resource plays, which confirms a lot of what we've been saying about the Monterey resource potential. Not only is the Monterey Shale the largest overall play, it also dwarfs all other individual U.S. oil shale plays."

Marquez then noted the staggering possibilities for oil development: Monterey Shale "represents 64 percent of the technically recoverable shale oil resources in the Lower 48 states." In a recent story, the New York Times put that estimate in context. "The Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation's top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas." What makes such speculation possible is technological advancement in drilling techniques, such as fracking, deep horizontal drilling and the large-volume use of hydrofluoric acid.

It was against this backdrop that state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, opened a recent legislative hearing on fracking in California. She noted a spike in leasing, and the high prices being paid by speculators, by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of federally owned lands in California atop Monterey Shale formations on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley.

"We're seeing a land rush," she said.

Over the six hours of testimony that followed, an interesting pattern emerged. Environmentalists advocating strict regulation of fracking cited a Monterey Shale oil-drilling boom as a certain prospect, while oil industry representatives downplayed the speculation, noting that results from test wells so far have not been promising.

The oil reserves may exist, they said, but they may not be recoverable, at least not with current technology.

Both sides had self-interested reasons for taking those views.

Environmental advocates are alarmed that fracking has been taking place for so long in California without being subjected to any regulations beyond those that apply to all drilling operations. The Department of Conservation is just now circulating a "discussion draft" of fracking rules it may put in place, rules that environmentalists have criticized as too lenient.

The industry, which notes there has not been one reported instance of environmental damage caused by fracking in California, seems resigned that an age of regulation has arrived, but wants standards that are not overly intrusive or expensive with which to comply.

At this stage, fracking regulation is proceeding along two tracks — administratively and in the Legislature.

The lawmaking delegation from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties is taking the lead.

Pavley has authored a bill that would establish advance notification requirements for fracking activities and the disclosure of the chemicals used. State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, has proposed new regulations governing wastewater produced by fracking, and Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, seeks to require ground water monitoring at sites where fracking is proposed.

It's a certainty that fracking regulation is coming soon to California's oil patch.

<NO1>There may yet be some way, however, to differentiate between requirements that will be placed on traditional operations at conventional California oil wells, which tap into underground reservoirs beneath a layer of impermeable cap rock, and regulations targeted at emerging oil development that will use different technologies in areas with different geologic features.

One such differentiation being discussed behind the scenes by some in Sacramento is a variation on an old and controversial idea —<NO><NO1>the establishment of an oil severance tax, but one that would apply only to new wells.

There may yet be an opportunity for policymakers and regulators to get out before this emerging shale oil "<NO><NO1>play"<NO><NO1> without stepping too heavily on the state's existing oil producers —<NO><NO1> the ones who have long been at work.

Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.