Oil, Oil Everywhere, But How to Tap?

At 15 billion barrels, California's Monterey Shale is said to hold the nation's largest deposit of recoverable oil. The only problem is that its extraction has not proven to be economically profitable. Blame it on the shale's unique structure.

2 minute read

April 8, 2014, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


"The Monterey Shale is unlike other oil shale formations across the United States" due to the "constant seismic reshaping that has folded, stacked and fractured the substrate," writes Julie Cart about the formation "which covers 1,750 square miles, roughly from Bakersfield to Fresno." In 2011, the federal Energy Information Administration estimated that it contained more than 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil or 64 percent of the total shale oil resources in the U.S.. 

Two of the most prolific oil shale plays in the U.S., the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas, have "oil reserves pooled in orderly strata of rock. Once the rock is cracked open by fracking or other means, operators can sink a single well with multiple horizontal shafts and pull in oil from a wide area," writes Cart. If only the Monterey Shale was structured the same way.

To crack the code, companies are busily drilling test wells [in Kern County — where the bulk of the Monterey formation lies] using various fracking and acidization techniques in search of cheaper solutions. So far, no one seems to have found a method to profitably extract the oil.

But that hasn't stopped drillers from trying. "The potential bonanza is too big for many oil companies to ignore," Cart writes. "Should energy companies find a way to crack the Monterey's deeply folded rock, the ensuing boom could be transformative for California" which has the nation's fourth highest unemployment rate

A 2013 University of Southern California economic study, "The Monterey Shale & California’s Economic Future", funded by the energy industry, "projected that the Monterey formation had the potential to increase oil production in California sevenfold."

It may never happen, says David Hughes, a geoscientist at the Santa Rosa-based Post Carbon Institute, who "studied both the USC report and the federal data and then published his own assessment, which casts a skeptical eye on the rosy assumptions." Even Chevron's chief executive has said, "The jury's out on Monterey Shale."

Monday, April 7, 2014 in Los Angeles Times

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