At South Belridge field west of Bakersfield, California, derricks bow and rise, pumping oil just as they have for more than a century. South Belridge, one of the state’s largest oil fields, has produced more than 1 billion barrels since 1911. Like much of the oil produced here over the past 150 years, the petroleum has sprung from a jumble of rocks known as the Monterey shale formation.
Until now, California has generally produced that oil conventionally, from the traps and folds in the Earth where it has seeped over millennia. But the industry believes that advanced technologies including the hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques that have supercharged oil and gas production in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania could be key to unlocking oil that remains tightly bound underground in the Monterey formation.
To some, as I explain over at National Geographic, the costs of such a bonanza appear too high. “California has taken a leadership role in attempting to address climate change, which is the greatest threat to people and wildlife facing this planet,” Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit group that is suing to slow the U.S. government’s efforts to lease public land for oil and gas exploration in the Monterey shale region, told me in an interview. “If we have an oil boom in the state, it will completely undermine those efforts.”