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East Bay Express: California gets fracked

Courtesy of EastBayExpress.com

Big Oil is rushing to extract fossil fuel from the state's underground shale formation. But will it contaminate — and waste — portions of our water supply?

Inside a nondescript building in Sacramento, an auctioneer prepared to lease thousands of acres of public land that could ultimately reap billions of dollars in profits for the winning bidders. The December auction at the federal Bureau of Land Management building also was met with a formal protest lodged by the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity. The environmental group contended that the bureau hadn't completed thorough environmental assessments prior to leasing the land. Protesters had gathered outside as well. One burst into the auction, yelling, "Mother Earth isn't for sale!" The outburst elicited a few chuckles from the group of assembled bidders; the auctioneer then moved on.

During the bureau's previous quarterly auction, many parcels went unsold. The interest shown by the oil and gas industry had been lukewarm. But things were different at this auction. The bureau offered up a total of 17,832 acres for lease, and all of the land was bid on and sold. In fact, all the parcels drew multiple bidders during the auction, which generated a total of $104,099 in revenue for the federal government. Going forward, busy auctions like this one likely will become the norm. 

At the heart of the expected land-rush in California is the Monterey Shale, a huge underground geologic formation that stretches from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo and contains a rich deposit of fossil fuel. The formation snakes through eleven counties, but unlike the shale formations in the Northeast and Rocky Mountains, the Monterey Shale is not coveted for its natural gas, but for the oil it contains. No one knows exactly how much oil is in there, but upper-limit estimates from IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates predict that there are 400 billion barrels of oil — an estimated 15.5 billion barrels of which are recoverable using current technology.

Extracting much of that oil won't be as simple as drilling some wells, however. Nestled in rock formations thousands of feet below ground, the oil can only be retrieved through hydraulic fracturing — a controversial process better known as fracking. Over the past few years, fracking has exploded around the country, spurring a natural gas boom. Fracking allows gas and oil companies to access fossil fuels that were once thought to be unrecoverable, thus fueling a belief that the nation could someday become energy independent.

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This story was originally published at EastBayExpress.com on February 6, 2013.