The punch lines of a long-anticipated U.S. Energy Information Administration study were made public last week and, according to the federal government’s findings, there isn’t nearly as much extractable oil in California’s large swaths of Monterey Shale, the rocky and mineral-rich substrata beneath some 1,700 square miles of Central California (including swaths of Santa Barbara County) that was previously believed to be home to a gold rush of untapped petroleum reserves. In fact, according to the new report, roughly 600 million barrels of harvestable crude is down in the shale versus the 13.7 billion barrels estimated by a similar study done by an independent contractor in 2011.
Though the full report won’t be released in its entirety until next month, the early findings seem to deliver a deflating blow to the revved-up corporate oil speculating that has been steadily increasing throughout the state as well as here in Santa Barbara since the bullish forecast of the 2011 report. This is of particular note since the newest oil-industry boogeyman, hydraulic facturing (a k a fracking), has also been on a steady increase in lockstep with this speculation boom. However, according to the county’s Energy Division Deputy Director Kevin Drude, this new report most likely won’t have much impact on the plans of oil operators here: “They have been working these fields for 100 years, so they know what is going on down there and have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get the oil out. This study is more about national impacts; I don’t see it changing production technology or forecasts locally at all,” opined Drude this week. He added that currently, there is no fracking happening onshore in Santa Barbara County and that the bulk of the planned new oil operations are cyclic-steaming operations rather than fracking, a technique that focuses on extracting the oil in the diatomite, an area of earth that is markedly more shallow than the Monterey Shale. Bob Poole, spokesperson for Santa Maria Energy, echoed Drude’s interpretations, saying he wasn’t sure the new study has any real meaning for his company or most county operators. “[The study] is focused upon the potential for discovery of new oil fields. Most of what is going on in this county is occurring within fields long known to exist,” added Poole.
The study does little to deter the efforts of Water Guardians, an S.B.-based group that, thanks to a sweeping signature campaign this past spring, is spearheading an initiative to ban fracking and cyclic steam on this November’s ballot. If anything, says Guardians spokesperson Katie Davis, the news underscores why exactly the ban is needed. “Pretty shocking to be off by 96 percent!” said Davis. “I think it goes to show that the oil industry’s economic forecasts can in no way be trusted, just as their assurances that their practices are completely safe are patently and demonstrably untrue.”