February 08, 2013 5:00 pm  •  

HANFORD — Deep beneath Kings County soil, west of Highway 43, are untapped oil riches that could dwarf North Dakota’s boom, according to an article published this week in the New York Times.

The Times story suggested that the Monterey formation has an estimated 15.4 billion barrels, more than four times the Bakken Shale field in North Dakota. The formation is mostly in the San Joaquin Valley with Kings County at the epicenter.

That’s attracting numerous oil companies to the area, including Bakersfield-based Aera Energy LLC, which started drilling an exploratory well in Kings on Tuesday in partnership with Canadian company Zodiac Exploration Inc.

It’s the third exploratory well in Kings since 2011 to tap into the deep formation, which technological advances have brought into play.

Two questions haven’t quite been answered yet — whether it’ll be economically profitable and how much blowback it’ll receive from California’s powerful environmental groups.

“Right now, we’re not sure exactly how much oil we’re going to be able to extract,” said Chris Boyd, an Aera land consultant. “We really haven’t drilled that many wells.”

The 12,000- to 15,000-feet-deep formation requires advanced drilling techniques that include “fracking” — injecting high-pressure chemicals underground to break up the dense rock and release the oil trapped inside.

Fracking is drawing major controversy, with some environmental groups claiming that it pollutes groundwater. Aera says it would be safe in the Valley because of the depth of the drilling.

“We’re all pretty confident that you’d never have a groundwater contamination issue [from the fracking],” Boyd said.

Greenaction, a Bay Area based group active in Kettleman City, is already raising objections about fracking and other potential concerns.


“We would dispute their contention that it would allegedly never be a threat,” said Bradley Angel, Greenaction executive director. “We would like to ask this company, what [fracking] chemicals are you using?”

Having an oil boom in the Valley like the one in North Dakota would add to air pollution and be an “absolute environmental disaster,” Angel said.

Kings economic development officials are taking a wait-and-see approach, but they are pleased at the jobs such a boom would bring to a high-unemployment area.

“If it’s safe, this could obviously be a real boon,” said Larry Spikes, Kings County administrative officer. “If [fracking] is below the water table, that would be great.”

Susan Hersberger, an Aera spokeswoman, said it’s premature to speculate about the future because exploration is in such an early stage.

But there’s one thing nobody disputes — plenty of shale oil sits under Kings County, and the know-how exists to potentially turn it into a gold mine.

“Certainly, as the New York Times has indicated, the reserves are there,” Hersberger said.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 or [email protected].