R.J. Matson

California Climate Action and Shale Oil Extraction Don’t Mix

Wednesday, November 6, 2013
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In 2012 author and activist Bill McKibben wrote what would become one of the most viewed and widely shared pieces ever posted on His article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” looked at the allowed emissions to avoid dramatic climate change: The world can emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide and stay below 2°C of global warming (about 3.6°F), the increase agreed upon by all nations at Copenhagen as the threshold not to exceed. Burning known fossil fuel reserves presently held by various nations and private companies world over would emit 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide — five times the safe amount. The conclusion: the world needs to keep 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground or risk catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

What does this mean for an oil-producing state like California?

Covering much of Central California and extending as far south as Los Angeles, the Monterey Shale formation is by far the largest shale oil reserve in the country, with an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of oil according to the Energy Information Administration. The Monterey could hold twice as much recoverable shale oil as the country’s second- and third-largest formations, the Bakken in North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas, combined.

This isn’t the conventional oil we’ve been drilling in California for the past hundred years. This is tight oil that can only be extracted through energy-intensive, high-emissions processes like fracking, acidizing, and steam injection. “Well to wheel” analyses (e.g., “Oil Sands, Greenhouse Gases, and US Oil Supply: Getting the Numbers Right,” IHS, 2010) show that like Canadian tar sands, California heavy oil is among the most carbon-intensive in the world — exactly the kind of oil that needs to stay in the ground if we are to head off the worst impacts of global warming.

Let’s look at a specific tight oil project in our county. The 136-well project proposed by Santa Maria Energy up for approval by the Santa Barbara County supervisors on November 12 would generate 88,000 tons of greenhouse gases for the projected production of one million barrels of oil per year. If approved, this project would be one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Barbara County, equivalent to adding 17,000+ cars to the road. This project is average for California heavy oil production in terms of emissions.

Now imagine we extract an expected 15.4 billion barrels of shale oil. There’s no exact estimation of the time it would take. Twenty years? Fifty years? Let’s assume conservatively we extract it over the next hundred years. At the ratio of 88,000 tons of greenhouse gases to produce one million barrels of oil, that works out to about 12 million tons of greenhouse gases per year or the equivalent of emissions from 2.5 million cars — roughly the number of vehicles registered in the City of Los Angeles. An oil boom in California means the equivalent of adding an entire Los Angeles’ worth of cars to the state just to get the thick, heavy oil out of the ground — not counting transporting, refining or burning all that oil.

California global warming law AB 32 requires us to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. A California shale oil boom would make it much more difficult to meet those overall reduction goals. Imagine trying to double the number of cars in Los Angeles and reduce overall emissions at the same time.

A shale oil boom would be a disaster for the environment locally and climate change globally, but lawmakers have yet to get the message. Fracking and other forms of enhanced oil extraction are linked to spills, air pollution, water contamination, health problems, and even earthquakes from waste water injected deep underground near fault lines. And yet even a modest bill to put a moratorium on fracking until a regulatory program is put in place in California failed 24-37 on May 30. An analysis by showed that those voting “no” on the bill received, on average, 31 times as much money from opposing groups like the Western States Petroleum Association as from supporting groups.

Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN body tasked with delivering a global climate treaty, recently broke down in tears as she spoke about the impact of global warming on coming generations. “I just feel that it is so completely unfair and immoral what we are doing to future generations; we are condemning them before they are even born. We have a choice about it,” she told the BBC.

In California that choice is stark. We are rich in sun and wind and could be a global leader in climate action, setting bold goals for clean energy, ushering in a revolution in transportation, and building a sustainable economy for future generations. Or, we could ramp up production of some of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels in the world. The climate crisis won’t solve itself, but it is solvable. Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University suggests a plan involving an energy infrastructure based on wind, water, and solar power that would provide sufficient energy to power the entire world. The prerequisite is facing the problem head on, holding our leaders accountable — and doing the math.

Katie Davis is a member of Catherine Gautier is professor emerita with the Geography Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

In this time for climate change California should be leading the fight to eliminate the emissions of CO2 in every aspect of life that is possible. To start with California should increase the tax on petroleum products by something like 5% per year for the next 10 years or until there is no private use of these products. Also the state should increase the tax on electric generated (generated in the state or imported form another state) for electric where there is any CO2 emitted.
Another control that should be used is a very strict emission test. If a car fails it could not be used in the state. Any car coming into the state should have to pass the same test. Also aircraft should also have to meet a very strict emission test. For small private aircraft the testing would be based on both CO2 and NO3 per mile travailed.

Curly4 (anonymous profile)
November 6, 2013 at 11:59 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Global warming is a hoax. But renewables are still a better idea.

The National Academy of Sciences reported in 2009 that the health costs associated with burning coal and oil add up to $120 billion per year. That's YOUR tax dollars being used to “mitigate.” Currently these are the “carbon offsets” coming right out of YOUR pocket.

Why would we keep using energy sources that cause premature deaths of unborn babies in proximity to the refineries making the fuels usable? Are there alternatives? YES.

Mark Jacobson's strategy for 100% Renewables by 2030

Reject the damn SME project! And if you have to, mitigate the CO2 by 100%. It'll give this disgusting industry less profits! SOBs!

nitrogen (anonymous profile)
November 6, 2013 at 1:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I maintain that both the extremes in the on-going shale debate have their facts and reality all confused. Here are the facts that matter:
1) According to the 2013 EIA assessment, the US has shale oil reserves of 58 billion barrels (BB). This, coupled with conventional oil reserves of 35 BB, give the US a total reserve of 93 BB. With the US daily consumption of 18.6 million barrels a day (mbd), this gives the US an oil life of a meager 13.7 years, if we could extract at 18.6 mbd! So much for the “shale miracle”.
And all this hype about the “US being oil independent by 2020 “ is sheer nonsense too. We consumes 18.6 mbd, will produce at a maximum of perhaps 11.4 mbd and hence will have to import the balance 7.5 mbd forever, until the rest of the world too runs dry.
2) The corresponding numbers for total world oil are 345 BB shale + 1669 BB conventional, 89.6 mbd consumption rate, resulting us a mere 61 year life span. And this is at the 2012 consumption rate. Growth in the developing world will only degrade this number further.
3) Of total world energy, fossil fuels dominate. Oil is 33%, Natural Gas is 23%, Coal is 29%, totaling 85% of world energy. It is obvious that the human race is slave to fossil fuel.
4) However, the alternate solutions are far from happening and predictions of 2030 and 2050 are illusionary, even if affordable. So to all you fracking opponents, you have no choice yet but to accept the fact that the US and the world desperately needs whatever shale oil it can recover. It is a simple choice of either riding a donkey or having to live with the pollution until viable alternates become reality.
5) The Stanford University research, referred to in the second comment, listed the following as to what it takes for a state like New York to get totally free of fossil fuels:
• 4,020 x onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
• 12,770 x offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
• 387 x 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
• 828 x 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants
• 5 million x 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
• 500,000 x 100-kilowatt commercial/govt rooftop photovoltaic systems
• 36 x 100-megawatt geothermal plants
• 1,910 x 0.75-megawatt wave devices
• 2,600 x 1-megawatt tidal turbines
• 7 x 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants
That is a total of 380,000 megawatt installed capacity at an implied cost of about $580 BILLION. And New York state consumes only 3.3% of US energy (Texas is the biggest hog at 14%, California next at 7%). So, multiply the above list by 30 for all of the US ( $16.8 trillion at least) and by 170 for all of the world ($99 trillion at least). And then it is utopia forever!
So, all you environmentalists and all you fossil-huggers, get aware of the facts and figures before going off on your respective tangents.

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 7:19 a.m. (Suggest removal)

(continuing my comment....)
.........The human race will be in great jeopardy within a mere generation’s life span. So let’s not fret about the quality of today’s air because there may not be many tomorrows left . While the industrial revolution has been the boon to modern civilization as we know of it, it could be the bane causing civilization’s demise.
We pride ourselves for being an educated and informed nation. Let us at least try to be so. Recommended reading:
1) EIA Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources, June 2013
2) EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2013 with projections to 2040
3) BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2013 .
Corresponding links below:

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 8:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

California has long led the nation in conservation and green energy efforts. What starts here tends to migrate to the rest of the country as proven results demonstrate the value of these efforts and technologies. Fracking our local shale oil is a net negative for California and the environment. We should lead the way in stopping efforts like this and show the rest of the country how to thrive using alternatives.

The commenter, Matthew, talked about the high the cost of alternative energy installation. I have two thought to offer. 1. Has he seen the defense budget? Energy independence and clean energy are a much better use of the same money. 2. With greater investment, more innovation will likely improve the costs and efficiency of alternative, green energy sources.

hopeful (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 9:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

So you want more corporate welfare to "invest" in these new technologies?

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 9:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Those energy investment numbers are large, but energy is a big business.

Worldwide we invested $260 billion in renewables last year and $262 billion in fossil fuels. If we quickly shifted fossil fuel investment to renewables, we'd be investing $522 billion a year.

If we in the US kicked it up a notch (say investing the same as we put into the Iraq and Afganistan wars which was $4-$6 trillion dollars), we could solve the problem right away and save ourselves and our kids from catastrophe.

jdiggs (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 3:06 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Response to Botany: This is exactly the stupidity that I refer to. If you or generations after you do not want to ride a donkey or a camel within this century, you need to cough up the investment and invest in renewables. Is this so difficult to comprehend? Is the math too difficult? Here is how it is , try and comprehend:

1) The US is the single largest consumer of world energy : 20% of oil and 18% of all energy forms combined ( but with only 4.6% of the world’s oil and only 6.8% of the world’s gas, all the shale “miracle” included). The US therefore needs to lead in getting mankind out of this impending crises. And an impending crises it is, one that educated people would comprehend.
2) Non-fossil fuel and renewable energy is the only way out if we are to survive. It is going to hurt the pocket book, but then we need to make some hard choices and start the process now, it is already too late. One way of forcing the American public to cut back on its gluttony for gasoline is to force it to be less affordable, to force people to make the easy choices of more fuel efficient cars, more car pooling, more public transportation.
3) Unfortunately, strong arm legislation may be required in mandating fuel economy, banning gas guzzlers, mandating trucks to LPG etc. For those who cry foul citing “individual liberties, big government, economy slowdown etc. etc” I ask “do you want to survive beyond 61 years? If so, you need to swallow it now”.
4) Taxing gasoline to the $8 per gallon that the Europeans pay too may become a necessary evil to force the issue. That will make solar and wind more attractive, foster their development. And the additional tax revenue can be channeled towards developing these industries and in the process help drive down the cost of the energy.
5) To those who moan about the higher costs of goods and services that increased fuel prices will cause, I say tighten your belts and cut down on your excesses if you want to live beyond 61 years! We are a glutinous nation that needs to mends its ways.
6) All-electric cars, longer capacity storage batteries providing more driving range, delivery/charging national infrastructure that mimics the current gasoline delivery system –all these need to be developed. We need to get started immediately, we are already too late. Even today’s young generation is in great jeopardy, not just future generations.

Wake up and smell the coffee!

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 7:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Mathew: Punitive taxes on gas sound good in theory but the reality is many of us have to commute so unless you have a more affordable alternative to what I'm paying now for gas there is no way I can get on board with this plan.

Yes, the ideas you present are good, but when you're a blue-collar person who is already strapped financially the last thing you need is to have to pay even more $$$ simply to go to work.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 7:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If everybody truly cared we would stop wasting oil. Even oil industry people are dismayed at the amount of waste. It's not easy to find as these debates atest to in themselves.
The plastic bag ban actually was a step in that right direction to a large degree, use of oil. How much plastic do you throw away/recycle? Unfortunately many reusable shopping bags are made of plastic , but I suppose it's at least a prolonged use.

Wrap that fastfood burger in paper. Wrap your lunch in paper or reusable tupperware at least. If you smoke get a refillable lighter. So many ways.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 7:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

We should all install solar on our roofs. Then each family could be energy independent, especially if they were able to afford an electric car for urban traveling. Imagine spending money on doing this as national defense, instead of the Iraq war which cost us big time and gained zip except for more oil imports and saving Halliburton from bankruptcy.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 9:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Even natural gas trucks to replace diesel trucks are a good idea, but the anti-fossil fuel faction is so hung up on opposing anything fossil, they would rather just make life difficult for truckers rather than agree to anything fossil regardless of whether it's beneficial to the environment or not.

Strong arm legislation? Now THAT'S stupidity!

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 10:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"We should all install solar on our roofs.."

tabatha (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 9:39 p.m.

Believe me, if I could afford to I would, but I imagine the vested interests who benefit from our payments for electricity will do whatever they can to make sure that doesn't happen. I would also love to have my own well so I didn't have to depend on the water company.

In the big picture, not only would we benefit as individuals, but society would be much more productive with as many people off the grid as possible.

The old frontier way of living combined with modern technology would be a good thing.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 10:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This two minute forty-nine second video explains why solar power is superior. Turn up the sound and watch/listen.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 11:02 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Response to billclausen: What part of the discussion has not gotten thru? The cost of gasoline will be a mute issue when none is available. And “work” may become mute too if there is no energy to power it, unless work involves walking behind a horse plough in the fields. How much more simply can one convey this simple message across ? It is getting to be so ridiculous that it is scary!

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 8, 2013 at 11:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"How much more simply can one convey this simple message across ? "

By telling us how much alternative fuel sources will cost vs. gasoline. I would like to see the figures. If it costs me about $13 per day to commute to work, how much will the alternative plan cost?

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 6:46 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Hey clausen, what part of "That is a total of 380,000 megawatt installed capacity at an implied cost of about $580 BILLION. And New York state consumes only 3.3% of US energy (Texas is the biggest hog at 14%, California next at 7%). So, multiply the above list by 30 for all of the US ( $16.8 trillion at least) a"nd by 170 for all of the world ($99 trillion at least). And then it is utopia forever!" don't you understand? He gives you all kinds of numbers.

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 6:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dolphinpod: I'm all for alternative energy, but I do not see the costs being broken down into tangible numbers.

Indy car racing banned gasoline after the tragic 1964 indy 500 and burned methanol from that point on and switched to ethanol a few years ago so the technology has been there for a long time. What is standing in the way? Is it cost?...or is it vested interests? I remember my dad telling me many years ago per the subject of indy cars that methanol cost more to use and that it wasn't as efficient per gas milage. (Again, that is why gasoline was preferred in indy car racing until its dangers forced USAC to ban it)

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 7:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

To all the clausens and botanys out here: I give up! Happy trucking into that sunset. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss after all.

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 8:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Good luck on your carbon free life Mathew. I hope you don't own any dogs.

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 8:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

billclausen and Botany:

Have you looked at the 100% renewables worldwide study by standford engineer Jacobson?

nitrogen (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 8:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Does anyone remember that classic video game, SimCity?

I was totally absorbed in playing SimCity, trying to figure out the best way to get a high score by building a huge city as fast as I could.

Fast forward to now and as an engineer, I still think about the inner workings of that game and how it required players to balance so many factors to build your city. Can't have those power plants too close to the houses!

One of the lessons I took from SimCity was there are costs and consequences associated with every action you take when building your "city" (math geeks call them "cost functions"). Nobody told you what those costs were, you just figured them out as you played.

How is this relevant? In real life, we know there are "costs" associated with using fossil fuels. Some costs are concrete and personal ... the money you pay at the pump. Some costs are very abstract and absorbed collectively ... impacts to human health and to the environment. The latter are easily dismissed or ignored. If you choose to as an individual.

So getting to billclausen's practical questions about "costs" ...

I suspect we'll never crack the energy nut until all costs are brought out to the open, monetized, and felt by the individual. This is not an elitist wish. But in a society like ours where the individual is more important than the welfare of the country, things won't change unless the individual begins to experience the real costs of consuming energy.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 12:38 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Response to Botany: Obviously there is a reading and comprehension problem here! If you bother to read and absorb all that I have written at this site, you might realize that carbon-free is not my concern at all. The fact that the earth will soon be running out of its fossil fuels is the concern. It is not an infinite source. I hope that we are in agreement on at least that point. I could care less about that grey/brown sunset!

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 12:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

SimEarth was equally fun as I recall.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 1:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

No comprehension problem, there's just no data to support that assertion. There's enough recoverable shale oil in the US alone to produce over one trillion barrels, not the 58B you claimed.


Botany (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 4:03 p.m. (Suggest removal)

it's drivel to state "There's enough recoverable shale oil in the US alone to produce over one trillion barrels" ... but it does show that Mathew has to begin to learn that the Botanies of this world indeed have "a reading and comprehension problem". It's all in the "recoverable" word, which dear Botany cannot comprehend.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 4:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

It would be drivel if I just stated it instead of backing it up with data from a reliable source which you didn't even bother to read. It's one thing to have a "comprehension" problem, it's another not to bother to read at all.

Botany (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 4:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

So the EIA is not reliable? Yes, I'm done with the idiots! They can stew in their idiocy.

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 5:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

To all the clausens and botanys out here: I give up!

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 8:14 a.m.
I'm done with the idiots! They can stew in their idiocy.

Mathew (anonymous profile)
November 9, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.

No Matthew, you can't leave me here alone with these people. I have no argument against them. Please don't abandon me here!

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
November 10, 2013 at 1:08 a.m. (Suggest removal)

just swim through it, dolphin, & stay with the podcast.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
November 10, 2013 at 6:35 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I'll take Mathew's EIA links over Botany's IER link any day.

The IER (Institute for Energy Research) masquerades as a non-partisan non-profit doing objective energy research.

In fact, the IER's agenda is anti-alternative energy and they've been a force behind the Libertarian climate-change denial movement. IER is funded by the Koch Brothers and in the past has been funded by ExxonMobil. IER's CEO is a former Enron executive and a fellow at the Cato Institute.

The political arm of IER is the American Energy Alliance and is run by a former Koch Industries lobbyist.

Not even close to being an objective source of information.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
November 10, 2013 at 11:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

in the epistemology section, it's Mathew by a longshot!
And gotta tell you, Botany, as much as you may think I'm just a manipulated mouthpiece of "the far left", you, old buddy, are a manipulated tool of the Koch brothers and the petroleum industry and the landlords' lobby... can you admit that? Do you peruse any middle-of-the-road or center-left info streams? When you cite IER, it's like foo citing NCTQ on teacher assessment: silly, biased, and ignorant.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
November 10, 2013 at 1:31 p.m. (Suggest removal)

DrDan: Are you channeling Full Metal Jacket? Remember the scene where Hartmann says of Joker "Private Joker is silly and he's ignorant but he's got guts, and guts is enough!"

billclausen (anonymous profile)
November 10, 2013 at 7:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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