California’s Monterey Shale not a fracking oil bonanza after all, says Energy Information Administration

California’s Monterey Shale is supposed to revolutionize oil resources in the United States, with perhaps 15 billion barrels of recoverable oil – recoverable, that is, through using the acidizing form of fracking.  That much oil is pretty darn significant, that is if one wants to stay wedded to fossil fuels.  As a result moves are underway to start fracking operations in California, even though it’s understood that fracking operations, specifically the disposal of produced water, can cause earthquakes.  That fact should make any Californian immediately hold up their hand and yell STOP because the last thing we want is earthquake inducing activity in California.

But, our dear Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been doing so many wonderful things in the cause of the environment and reversing the causes of climate change, is gung-ho in support of fracking.

News was just published in the LA Times which will, if true, completely erase the need to frack California’s Monterey Shale.  Why?  The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) is due to release a report next month slashing the estimate of recoverable oil, using existing technology, down to 600 million barrels of oil.  That’s a tiny fraction of the 15 billion barrel currently shown on the EIA website and in the 2011 report Review of Emerging Resources: U.S. Shale Gas and Shale Oil Plays.

As this chart shows, the Monterey Shale oil reserves are a large portion of the total expected oil shale reserves in the U.S.  Given the shrinking of US Domestic oil production (other than the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays), the domestic energy picture is pretty bleak with ever-increasing dependency on foreign oil.  But this chart shows that the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays are a fraction of what was supposed to be recoverable from the Monterey Shale.

The LA Times report doesn’t cite a paper or other source with which I could locate any documentation on the EIA website.  Instead the LA Times summarizes “the energy agency” as saying “the earlier estimate of recoverable oil, issued in 2011 by an independent firm under contract with the government, broadly assumed that deposits in the Monterey Shale formation were as easily recoverable as those found in shale formations elsewhere.” And that a new report is expected next month blowing a big gaping hole in the previous estimate.

Why is the EIA slashing the estimated shale oil reserves in the Monterey Shale?  It has to do with California’s jumbled geology making it difficult to extract oil, even with fracking techniques.

Unlike other shale deposits that are flat and horizontal, California’s seismological makeup means the strata, hence the shale deposits, are jumbled every which way.  The geology will make it infeasible to extract much of anything from the Monterey Shale, with current technology.

J. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute published a paper in December 2013 saying the same thing.  That California’s geography makes it difficult to extract oil out of the Monterey Shale.  For example, EIA’s earlier estimate assumed 16 wells per square mile, an extremely dense placement.  Further, initial results from existing Monterey Shale wells is a fraction of what the EIA estimated it would be.

The key is “recoverable oil, using existing technology”.  The oil companies are full of smart people whose noggins are probably cooking up some new witches brew technology suited to conditions in the Monterey Shale.  What’s infeasible with existing technology might become feasible with tomorrow’s technology.  Maybe.

In the meantime the powers-that-be were hoping for an economic boom that would come from fracking the Monterey Shale.  According to J. David Hughes’ paper, a March 2013 study from the Univ of Southern California suggested that developing the Monterey Shale would, by 2020, increase California’s Gross Domestic Product by 14% and produce 2.8 million jobs and $24.6 billion in tax revenue every year.

I suppose that sort of prospect might make even the most die-hard-environmentalist-governor into a gung-ho-frack-it-all-governor.

But with the EIA revision the Monterey Shale potential, the economic activity will be that much smaller than what USC estimated.

While looking for data along this line of thinking I came across a pair of disturbing charts:

This comes from a US EIA presentation in Jan. 2014, and shows projected oil production and a US domestic oil bonanza from developing “tight oil”.  Note that it shows a decline in domestic oil production going to the beginning of the chart – 1990.  US Domestic oil production actually peaked in 1971ish.

This production bonanza from “tight oil” is slated to come on strong, almost doubling US domestic oil production within a couple years.  But notice that production peaks almost immediately, and starts a steep decline.

But the question is – how much of the “tight oil” portion of this chart was attributed to the Monterey Shale?

This chart is also from the EIA, in the 2014 Annual Energy Outlook report.  It shows nearly the same pattern, but focusing on the Eagle Ford play (in Texas). There will be a dramatic jump in production between 2010 and 2015, a few years of plateauing, and then a rapid decline in production.

In other words, the fracked shale oil deposits are not a long term oil resource.  The phrase “flash in the pan” comes to mind, instead.

What this means is that the U.S. had better get it through its thick head – fossil oil is a dead end street.  We had better get ourselves on a better road, one based on renewable energy resources.

The hopes for major improvements in US domestic oil production from fracking have been crushed.  There will not be much of a domestic oil boom, other than a few years of oil from the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations.  Once those resources start declining, the U.S. domestic energy picture will be even more bleak and dependent on foreign oil.  If production plays out as the last two charts suggest, this will just be a short blip of maybe 20 years duration.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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