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 day).
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 prices.
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 groundwater aquifers.
One factor: A University of Southern California 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 era.
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 forecast.
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 Energy Department 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 reliable.
So the oil industry says it will 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 drilling.
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. 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, Brown’s presumed Republican opponent this fall, has for months made all-out fracking a centerpiece of his economic platform and has yet to change his stance.
Even so, the drive for fracking has definitely been changed. That’s because 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 tune.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]