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The Uncertain Fate Of U.S. Shale In 2020

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Robert Rapier

Robert Rapier

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How The Californian Oil Boom Died

This week I am creating slides for a presentation I am giving in California later this month. While researching the material, I took a closer look at the history of California’s oil industry.

California’s Historical Importance

Many people are unaware of California’s importance in the U.S. oil industry. In fact, 100 years ago California was the top oil producer in the U.S., responsible at one point for nearly 40 percent of U.S. oil production.

California’s oil production rose throughout most of the 20th century, briefly eclipsing one million barrels per day in the early 1980s. Oil production began to decline thereafter peaking in 1985.

The same pattern took place in many other states, and in fact was the case for the entire U.S., where oil production peaked in 1970 and then declined over the next 35 years.

The Shale Boom Arrives

But the shale boom changed the trajectory of U.S. oil production. Oil production that had fallen for decades reversed direction and began to surge about a decade ago. Almost every state with shale oil resources saw a similar surge in production. Related: The Billionaires Battling It Out Over Biofuel

Since 2010, U.S. oil production has increased by 131 percent, with huge gains in oil production in the following states (among others):

• North Dakota – up 634 percent
• Colorado – up 508 percent
• New Mexico – up 377 percent
• Texas – up 330 percent
• Oklahoma – up 238 percent

In fact, only three major oil-producing states have seen a decline in oil production since 2010: California, Louisiana, and Alaska. One of the graphics I created for my presentation shows the stark contrast between oil production in Texas and California as the shale boom unfolded.

California is missing the shale boom.

During the 1980s and 1990s, oil production in Texas was declining faster than it was in California. Had that trajectory been maintained, oil production in Texas may have fallen below California’s in about 2010.

Texas and California

(Click to enlarge)

Instead, the shale boom has added nearly 4 million BPD of oil production in Texas. Millions of barrels were added in other states as well, and California began to slide down the ranks of leading oil producers. Just a few years ago California was still in second place, but now it has slipped to sixth, behind Texas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Alaska.

Geology Poses a Problem

Why did the shale boom leave California behind? California has a significant oil resource in the Monterey Shale. In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that the Monterey Shale could hold up to 23.9 billion barrels of oil. At that time this was more than the Texas Eagle Ford and North Dakota Bakken Shales combined.

Related: The EIA Cuts U.S. Oil Output Projections

However, the EIA later slashed its estimate of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale by 96 percent to just 600 million barrels. There are several reasons for this.

The primary reason is that the Monterey Shale is more geologically complex than other shale formations. It is jumbled and folded, which means it can’t be as easily exploited by horizontal drilling.

As part of my research, I checked the trajectory and number of wells being drilled in Texas and California. According to the Baker Hughes Interactive Rig Count Map, in early March there were 502 drilling rigs in Texas, with 92 percent of those drilling horizontal wells. In California there were only 15 drilling rigs, with 20 percent drilling horizontal wells. So the geology of the Monterey is the single biggest issue.

Environmental Opposition

But there are other barriers.

The resistance to fracking in California is much greater than in Texas, with more restrictive rules and some localized bans. This is especially true in areas where California’s oil resource is under prime agricultural land. Farmers are among those concerned both about the competition for scarce water, and that fracking could potentially contaminate the water supply.

As an aside, I would point out that the aquifers are near the surface, where each year farmers apply thousands of tons of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers directly on the ground. (Source.) There are also highways, cities, and plenty of industrial activity directly above the aquifers. These aquifers are a few hundred feet below the surface, but residents seem more concerned about fracking thousands of feet below the aquifers.

(A farming emailed me to declare that “thousands of tons” is a lie, but the source above from UC Davis says “We estimate that 550 thousand tons of N fertilizer, 240 thousand tons of manure N, and 4 thousand tons of urban and food processing waste effluent N are annually applied to or recycled in Central Valley agricultural lands for food production.”)

Conclusion: California Shale Boom Unlikely

In any case, even if California residents completely embraced the idea of fracking, it is unlikely that the state would experience the kind of boom seen in places like Texas and North Dakota. Geology has conspired against California.

Ironically, had the shale boom never occurred, California would likely be the No. 1 oil-producing state in the country at this point, given that it was No. 2 and declining at a slower rate than Texas. But Californians can console themselves with being the leading producer of solar power in the U.S.

By Robert Rapier

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Leave a comment
  • Mitch Farney on March 15 2019 said:
    Need to put royalties on solar power... that is California's rays!
  • Jonathan Swarek on March 17 2019 said:
    Yeah the thousands of tons is still off a bit. N is one thing, herbiscides and pesticides are a completely different animal and the cause for alarm when you say thousands of tons. If you apply a ton of nitrogen from any source you’re lucky if you get half a ton to stay in the soil, the other half (or greater if you don’t take major precautions) will end up back in the atmosphere where it came from in the first place and you’ve wasted your money. If you do get some N runoff it can end up in the oceans and cause the algae to bloom real hard and rob the oxygen from the water it’s in causing a dead spot where the river dumps (I.e. Mississippi River) but the ecosystem is fully ready to handle taking back what you took from it in the first place.

    Herbicides and pesticides are a completely different animal altogether.

    Source - am oilman first and farmer second.

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