This past Wednesday, state officials auctioned off almost 20,000 acres of drilling permits and oil leases in California’s Monterey, San Benito, and Fresno counties. These vast stretches of rural California have so far been known predominantly for their wildlife and vineyards. But they also harbor one of the largest deposits of shale oil in the country. In total, the state’s shale resources, extending from the eastern edge of Silicon Valley to Kern County, is projected to yield four times as much recoverable crude oil as the currently biggest production site, the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana. The Monterey Formation is estimated to hold at least 15.4 billion barrels of crude oil and, unlike the fields of North Dakota, does not necessarily require hydraulic fracturing to fully exploit the resources. By allowing oil companies to employ simpler, and thereby cheaper, vertical wells in some areas of the Monterey Shale, California oil play appears more promising and profitable than comparable projects.
While this recent discovery is bound to change the course of the state’s economic and energy policies, oil is hardly a new business in the golden state. In fact, many Americans may be surprised to learn that one of Southern California’s chief exports over the last 150 years, besides motion pictures, has been oil. Like oil reservoirs in Texas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, a hint of what lay beneath the surface could be seen in the many above ground oil seeps even hundreds if not thousands of years ago. The indigenous populations of California not only described, but also utilized the tar-like substance to waterproof their canoes; a practice recorded and adopted by European explorers in the New World. When the Spanish navigator and explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed from the Mexican port of Navidad to lead an expedition into upper California, he commented on the native Americans’ ability to sail far out into the sea with their simple reed canoes thanks to the “pitch” which rendered their canoes waterproof.
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