What Oil Companies See in the Monterey Shale

Sep 6, 2012

Energy companies are growing more and more interested in extracting natural gas, and oil from rock through hydraulic fracturing or fracking.  One of the nation’s biggest oil mega-rocks is the Monterey Shale.

Geologist Bob Garrison stands at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, on part of a vast rock formation known as the Monterey Shale.   “We’re standing on a cliff overlooking the coastline at Santa Cruz on the west side of Santa Cruz,” said  Garrison, UC Santa Cruz Professor Emeritus.  Garrison has extensively studied the Monterey Shale. The rock formation stretches from north of San Diego, up past San Francisco, then out into the Pacific, and inland into the San Joaquin basin.  Garrison leads the way toward the water’s edge where cracked light grey rocks peek out. “So we’re going to climb down there, and look closely at the rocks, particularly at the fracturing on the rocks,” said Garrison. The rocks he points out are fractured naturally, cracked in jagged lines from the stress of the earth itself.  Garrison says those fractures demonstrate roughly what oil companies do artificially. Fracking involves shooting water, sand and chemicals to create cracks in rock to extract natural gas, or oil.  “The Monterey formation is the main source, and reservoir rock for oil in California,” said Garrison.

CSU Long Beach Geological Sciences Professor Rick Behl says the Monterey Formation is pretty special.  He conducts ongoing research projects on the Monterey shale, with the support of some petroleum companies like ExxonMobil.  Behl says what makes the Monterey shale special is what happened during the Miocene epic, roughly ten-million years ago. That’s when ocean currents brought a surge of nutrients to the Pacific.  “There was a great deal of upwelling that brought those nutrients to the surface, and so the plankton, the single-celled algae that lived at the surface just reproduced like mad, so we have this amazingly rich formation,” said Behl.

In the past, energy prices weren’t high enough to motivate oil exploration in hard to reach areas. But prices have gone up.  Plus oil companies realized they can get to the oil by combining fracking with the evolving technology of horizontal drilling.  Behl says that has led to more exploration. And success elsewhere has turned attention to the Monterey Shale. “North Dakota, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, etcetera. So they’re turning their eyes, saying ‘Oh boy, there’s a whole bunch of Monterey formation that’s made of these rocks that we never could get oil out of before but now that we have these new technologies, maybe we can’,” said Behl.

The new technology and its potential consequences, has conservationists urging regulators to catch up.  “We need to ban fracking until we know what harms are occurring,” said  Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity.  He says California regulators need to start protecting the public from the dangers of hydraulic fracturing. “It has a host of harmful impacts. And unfortunately in California because the regulators are asleep at the wheel right now, we don’t know what harm is occurring to our groundwater supplies, our air quality and our wildlife,” said Evans.  It’s unknown because state and federal regulators have no authority over fracking.  And they don’t even have a way to track which companies are already doing it.   The Center for Biological Diversity has found evidence of fracking in Monterey County, but because companies don’t have to disclose their fracking activities, it is difficult to know just how much has been done and where. “At a minimum, we need disclosure of the harm that is occurring, and the type of chemicals that are be ing pumped into the ground and impacting our groundwater supplies,” said Evans.  The State Department of Conservation is developing regulations for fracking that could force greater disclosure.  A spokesman says it could be more than a year before the rules are finalized.