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Tom Zeller

California's Fracking Gusher Runs Dry

For advocates of a halt on unconventional oil development and more aggressive investment in renewable energy, last week provided a rather potent rhetorical gift. 
Frack away, but don't don't expect a miracle. Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images
Frack away, but don't don't expect a miracle. Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

So much for oil producers' California Dream: As reported first in the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. Energy Information Administration will soon slash its previous estimate -- made only a couple of years back -- that roughly 14 billion barrels of oil might ultimately be drawn from a huge deep-rock reservoir under Central and Southern California. The original estimate for the play -- known collectively as the Monterey Shale formation -- represented a whopping 64 percent of all "technically recoverable" shale oil resources in the lower 48 states.

Naturally, this set off speculation of coming boom times in the state and boosted the notion that the U.S. is on an unstoppable path to energy independence. A study based on the assessment from the University of Southern California, published with partial funding from the Western States Petroleum Association, envisioned a "new gold rush" that could add up to 2.8 million new jobs and as much as $24.6 billion in state and local government revenue.

In the space of a day, that all seemed to evaporate. The EIA now suggests that just 600 million barrels of oil might be recoverable from the Monterey shale -- a 96 percent reduction. The clean-tech news site CleanTechnica described the recalibration succinctly in a headline: "Fracking's Great Moment of Derp."