Fracking for the motherload: The untapped potential of the Monterey formation

Kern is already the largest oil producing county in the state, but could we produce even more? New estimates show our region is sitting on 15.4 billion barrels of oil, rivaling America's total conventional reserves.

Kern is already the largest oil producing county in the state, but could we produce even more? New estimates show our region is sitting on 15.4 billion barrels of oil, rivaling America's total conventional reserves.

It's an exciting prospect, but the oil industry isn't cashing in just yet because no company has been able to make wells on the formation profitable.

But, with the price of oil so high, companies are exploring, and some feel we're close to a new black gold rush.

High on a hill in the Temblor Range, a five-story high pumping unit pulls up oil from 9,500 feet. It's one of Veneco's eleven exploratory wells out there that's drilled into the untapped potential of the Monterey Shale Formation.

"It's a huge resource, potential resource for oil," said Randy Adams, former district deputy for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known to many as DOGGR.

Nearly 2,000 square miles, the formation extends from Bakersfield north in pods.

"The biggest concentrations are probably in the areas just north, south and west of Kern County," said Mike Handren, San Joaquin Valley Operations Manager for Plains Exploration and Production or PXP, an oil company.

Unlike the county's conventional oil reserves, the Monterey is deep, as many as eleven Empire State Buildings stacked up underground.

"The Monterey is probably ranging in depth from 8,000 to 14,000 feet," said Handren.

The formation has been known about for years, but up until three years ago it was estimated to contain about three to four billion barrels of oil. But, as technology progressed that estimate went up to 15.4 billion barrels.

"The Monterey Shale is being touted as the largest oil reserve in the United States," said Handren.

It is five times larger than the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Marcellus Shale on the east coast, that recently ignited oil and gas booms in those areas.

"We're the number one oil county in the country, so add on top of that 15 billion barrels of oil that would continue out, you know, 100 years," said Richard Chapman, President/CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corporation.

Economists estimate the Monterey would generate $250 billion in tax revenue. Not to mention creating jobs and generating $1.2 trillion in indirect economic revenue.

"As an economic developer this is exciting," said Chapman.

So why aren't we drilling away for this gold mine?

"The problem is where we've seen the estimate, we've seen agencies like the Energy Information Agency, those are just estimates," said Adams. "The actual volume of oil is not proven yet."

This means no company has found a major producible oil deposit in the Monterey.

"There's seismic data that has identified the structure, but the seismic data can't identify the oil saturation within that structure. So, the way you find that out is you go drill exploratory wells," said Handren.

Wells that are being drilled according to the Bureau of Land Management, that owns thousands of acres on the Monterey. In the last three to five years, they've sold oil rights to those lands at record prices.

"We've seen an increase in activity on our federal lands," said Gabe Garcia, Assistant Field Manager for Minerals for the Bureau of Land Management Bakersfield field office.

In 2002, land leases averaged $2.25 an acre. In 2010, that price jumped to about $500 an acre, leveling off now to about $230.

"The most active players, so far, has been Veneco. And, Veneco has drilled, I believe, 28 wells looking for producible Monterey Shale," said Handren.

As of 2011, Veneco owned 158,000 acres, but has yet to report success from any of its exploratory wells.

Other major land owners on the Monterey include Berry Petroleum, Plains Exploration and Production, and National Fuel and Gas Company.

The biggest player is Occidental Petroleum Company. They've been drilling into the Monterey north of Shafter. Even if one of these wells proves productive, experts said production of the Monterey won't happen immediately.

"It is still two miles down there so it won't happen overnight," said Chapman.

Until they find it or give up, exploration will continue.

"If it is there it will be a huge resource and a boost to the economy," said Adams.

It will be a boost to the economy that may begin with the oil being pumped up right now from the Monterey.

"If you can find a good big pod of Monterey Shale in California we'll have a boom," said Handren. "It will kick off a boom."

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