Freaking out about 'fracking' in California

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.

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