New Numbers Should Ease Intensity Of Fracking Drive, Debate

Sunday, 1 Jun 2014, 2:19:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

There’s a huge political implication in the big difference between 13.7

billion barrels of oil and 600 million.

Similarly, there's meaning in the gigantic difference between 15 trillion

cubic feet of natural gas and 6.4 billion (the average California household uses

about two to three cubic feet of natural gas per


Taken together, it’s the difference between fueling the entire United

States for several years and fueling it for only about

one month.

Those are the differences between the amount of oil and gas the federal

Energy Department in 2011 estimated lies trapped in the rocks of California’s

Monterey Shale geological formation and what it now says can actually be

recovered using current technology at today’s


The gigantic Arabian- or Oklahoma-style resources first said to be

available from the Monterey Shale, which stretches south from San Benito County

along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley all the way into Southern

California, gave rise to a strong drive for massive hydraulic fracturing. Better

known as fracking, this technique sees many thousands of gallons of water and

acid injected under high pressure deep into the ground, where it blasts apart

shale rocks holding oil and gas deposits.

The 2011 Energy Department estimates, repeated in 2012 and 2013, gave

rise to a boom mentality and changed the political balance of environmentalism

and job creation in this state.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who consistently champions measures fighting climate

change, refused to back an outright ban or moratorium on fracking in

California despite concerns over both production of greenhouse gases and

possible pollution of ever-more-vital ground water


One factor: A USC study contended that full-blown fracking of the Monterey

Shale would spur 2.8 million new California jobs in what seemed like it could

become the biggest boom here since the Gold Rush


The author of that study has told reporters the reduction of about 95

percent in official estimates of what can be readily extracted from the Monterey

Shale would similarly cut his job-creation


Through its information agency, the Energy Department explains the

massive cut in its expectations for the Monterey Shale by saying rocks there are

warped more than in other heavily-fracked areas like Ohio, North Dakota and

Pennsylvania. Earthquakes did this. The convolutions they produced in

subterranean rocks would make it far harder to extract oil by any current method

than previously thought, the EIA said.

Of course, any estimate that can change by 95 percent in one direction

seemingly overnight and for reasons that were long known prior to the initial

estimate is not likely to remain stable long. Nor can it be considered highly


So the oil industry says it wsill keep driving for fracking, trusting

that oil company scientists will devise ways to tap resources the firms have

lately rushed to control.

The politics of all this are still murky. With the latest estimate of

Monterey Shale resources now pretty similar to what’s known to exist in untapped

offshore California oilfields, logic says a fracking moratorium would cost no

more jobs than the current moratorium on new offshore oil


In short, environmentalists may argue that a moratorium – embodied in a

bill now active in the Legislature – makes as much sense in one place as the

other. And Brown, a decades-long supporter of the coastal oil moratorium, might

just go along since for the moment, the bottom has fallen out of fracking

job-creation forecasts.

So far, Brown has said nothing, and since he’s surely aware any

fluctuating estimate can change right back to where it was before, he’s not

likely to anytime soon. Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, fighting to

be Brown’s Republican opponent this fall, has for months made all-out fracking a

centerpiece of his economic platform and has yet to change his


Even so, the drive for fracking has definitely been changed. For the

ratio of fracking risks to benefits has now shifted radically – at least for the

next year or so – nor are the stakes as high as they were before the

late May day when the Energy Department radically changed its


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