Fracking in California

History of Fracking in California

The oil industry has a long history of fracking and drilling in California and remains well established in pockets of the state. Oil companies have used fracking for several decades, but new developments in well stimulation technology have made the process both more extreme and more effective.

California's first off shore oil well. The history of fracking includes offshore drilling

California’s first offshore oil wells in the Summerland Oilfield, before 1906. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Historically, fracking wells did not require significant amounts of fracking fluid or particularly high pressures to extract oil. Fracking wells were primarily ‘vertical’ and extended down into the earth directly below the well site. By the 1980s, oil production began to decline, as oil companies had already extracted the oil reserves that they could, using traditional methods.

In the last decade, oil companies have developed new techniques, including fracking, to extract oil which was previously unrecoverable.  With techniques such as horizontal drilling, which extends pipe miles away from the well head, oil companies can extract additional oil from existing oil fields where production has slowed.

Aerial of Kern Oil, the center of the history of fracking

Aerial view of the highly-developed Kern River Oil Field, the epicenter of the history of fracking in CA. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Oil companies are now also trying to drill into unconventional oil and gas rock formations, which had not previously been the site of any oil operations.  This oil is much more difficult to extract, requiring that greater quantities of water and chemicals be injected using more pressure and more energy overall. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, while a traditional fracking operation might use around 750 gallons of fluid per well, modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing uses up to eight million gallons per fracking job.  Learn more about new fracking technologies.


 The Monterey Shale

Illustration of the Monterey Shale formation. The Monterey shale makes up most of the history of fracking in California.

Illustration of the Monterey Shale formation. (Source: Bay Nature Magazine/Emily Underwood)

The majority of unconventional reserves in California are located in the Monterey Shale formation, which stretches approximately 2,520 square miles across Central and Southern California, where about 10 million Californians live. Due to geological challenges posed by the Monterey Shale, it’s unclear exactly how much oil remains trapped within these rocks. The U.S. Energy Information Association (EIA) originally estimated there could be between 13.7 and 15.4 billion barrels of oil. However, in 2014, the EIA drastically reduced their estimates to 0.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil, marking a 95.6% reduction. To date, relatively little oil has been extracted from the Monterey Shale, and the production estimates and subsequent forecasts promising an economic boom are under scrutiny.1 However, banking on the development of new, more extreme technologies that may hold the key to ‘unlocking‘ the Monterey, oil companies are actively acquiring large mineral-rights holdings in the formation.



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