The twilight of California oil

Last week the governor ordered a state agency to stop issuing fracking permits to oil drillers, starting as of 2024. This is less of a big deal than it seems. Hydraulic fracturing is rarely used in California because the permitting process was tightened in 2014 and because our earthquake-shaken rocks are already well fractured, and only three oil districts do it at all, accounting for about two percent of the state’s production. One place they still do it is in the Lost Hills area, which is fun to drive through if you like taking pictures like this:

This change won’t affect the California oil industry much, but it sounds great and is worth doing.

The governer also ordered another agency to start plans to shut down all oil production in California as of 2045. This is a big deal. Oil is as much a part of California as gold, Shasta and the redwoods. But our oil production has dropped by half since 1985, and now’s the right time to set a deadline. According to a pair of fresh studies, it won’t even start to hurt business for another decade.

Time to start saying goodbye to our old friend.

Natural seeps of oil and asphalt occur all over the state. The one at McKittrick is famous among geologists.

The tar glaciers at Carpenteria State Beach, near Santa Barbara, are a real spectacle.

These materials were used by the native tribes for things like sealing baskets, waterproofing boats and medicine. I’ll bet they made torches with them too.

Americans mined the deposits at first and distilled kerosene from them. That was a dirty business. Starting in 1860, enterprising men tried drilling wells like the first successful ones in western Pennsylvania. The first California oil well to make a profit was drilled in 1876 near Newhall, and we were off to the races.

Petroleum, oil from the ground, was a huge advance. It meant we could stop leveling forests for firewood. It meant we could stop the deadly, wasteful business of hunting whales to make liquid fuels or roasting coal to make gas. No one knew it at the time, but we could invent plastic. The petroleum-based energy and chemical system was eagerly adopted, popular and universal. But today we know how to do even better without it.

As always with this blog, there’s an Oakland angle. The Bay area is oil country.

There are oil seeps in Wildcat Canyon, and the first oil well in the Bay area was drilled nearby, east of San Pablo, in 1862. A short-lived oil field in Orinda, at the Minor ranch on Lauterwasser Creek, pumped greenish crude in the late 1890s. Oakland boosters like H. A. Aldritch, in 1897, were sanguine: “For many years oil has been oozing out of the shale and sandstone formations, and in every instance this oil has been strongly impregnated with gas. That the near future will produce this most promising industry, affording cheaper fuel for manufacturing purposes, is a settled fact. My prediction is that within the next few years Oakland and other cities and towns of this county will be in the full enjoyment of this, one of nature’s greatest blessings.” He was right, but the profitable wells were in the Central Valley.

A large portion of California’s oil originates in the Monterey Formation, a body of ribbon chert found up and down the coast. Oakland has a thick stripe of its close sibling, the Claremont Shale, running through the high hills.

Wherever you see it, it’s generally bleached-looking like this, but underground it’s black with organic matter, from the diatoms whose microscopic silica shells are what make up chert. Diatoms manufacture and store drops of oil inside their shells to help them float, and that oil is what becomes crude oil after cooking underground for geological periods of time.

When the Caldecott Tunnel bores were being dug, oil and gas wafted off this chert and caught fire more than once. During excavation of the fourth bore a few years ago, nothing that could spark was allowed inside. So let it be known: Oakland’s hills are full of oil. I have yet to find an oil or gas seep here, but it’s on my list. I have a theory that one may have had something to do with the great fire of 1991, which burst out in an area where the Claremont Shale is deeply exposed.

Here or wherever, petroleum will always be something to reckon with in California. But we have to start leaving it in the ground at all costs and return it to being a geological curiosity.

7 Responses to “The twilight of California oil”

  1. glasspusher Says:

    another fascinating post! Thanks Andrew.

  2. SlideSF Says:

    What about the fracking that goes on north of Calistoga for geothermal energy? Is that included in the ban?

  3. Andrew Alden Says:

    I don’t know for sure, but as I understand it, fracturing in the geothermal fields is thermal fracturing that relies on cold water, not hydraulic fracturing that relies on pulses of high pressure. And the resulting fluid is steam, not mixed formation brine, oil and frack formula.

  4. mlind Says:

    I read that Wildcat Canyon Park in Richmond had an oil well. Any information?

  5. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    During my misspent childhood growing up in L.A. in the 1950s-1960s, oil wells were part of the landscape. A drive across the coastal hills on La Tijera (‘The Windmill”) Road revealed the oil pumps, with their bobbing heads like giant grasshoppers.

    One of these wells that is still in operation on Weed Patch Highway, outside of Bakersfield. There dwell two brothers who forge custom swords for the RenFaire circuit. When oil was discovered on their acreage decades ago, the family sold the oil company an easement, the proceeds from which are important income. The well was fracked a few years ago, and the oil is now being extracted more rapidly. Sadly, every member of that family has suffered some awful illness. This can’t be a coincidence.

  6. SlideSF Says:

    Thank you for the reply and clarification. Still, I wonder if that kind of fracturing is really as harmless as it is portrayed. Surely water is hydraulic, and even if not under as high a pressure as oil fracking, it must be under some kind of pressure to penetrate downwards. And water heated to steaming increases the pressure. I am sure it is no coincidence that there have been countless swarms of small earthquakes right in the same region. What I don’t know is whether the proliferation of small quakes is due to some underground proximity to geothermal heat, or if the fracturing itself somehow causes the quakes.

  7. Anna Says:

    Wow! I had no idea stuff caught fire during the tunnel boring. Fascinating theory about the ’91 fire.

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