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November 2013

Here in California, a full-blown fracking boom isn't exactly inevitable. But then again, 15 billion barrels of oil is an awful lot to just leave sitting in the ground. That's how much crude may be trapped deep within a geological formation known as the Monterey Shale - a mother lode that could, if fully exploited, generate more than $24 billion in new tax revenue and create almost three million jobs.

Of course, hydraulic fracturing does carry risks, not the least of which relates to the chemicals that are forced into the rock, which could conceivably contaminate groundwater. Also, one has to wonder just how smart it is to do this kind of work along the San Andreas Fault.

That's where the environmentalists come in.

For this month's cover story ("All Fracked Up"), Glen Martin examines the lawsuits that the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club have filed to slow down, if not stop, fracking in California altogether. He also introduces us to Travis Goddard, a field operator for Venoco Inc.'s fracked well in Kern County. "Goddard is good at what he does," Martin observes. "And as a reporter I certainly wasn't there to challenge him on the possible consequences. I know better than that."

Interestingly enough, Martin himself is not convinced that fracking for oil is any more dangerous than, say, drilling off the Louisiana coast. But he does worry that by making so much more crude available, fracking will only make the world's addiction to fossil fuels harder to break. "My sense is that climate change, not fracking, will have the most dire impact on the lives of our grandchildren," he says.

The Center for Biological Diversity has two fracking-related lawsuits in the pipeline right now - both against California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. And early this fall Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 4, which includes measures to make frackers more accountable. Among its provisions, the law will require operators to obtain fracking permits from the same state agency that oversees conventional drilling, and to publicly disclose all of the chemicals they're using - which the industry has strongly resisted.

All this suggests that California's oil plays will be much more tightly regulated than the ones in North Dakota, where a fracking boom is well under way. However, with tighter controls also comes a strongly implied assumption. It's that no matter what anybody says, more fracking is on the way here, as well.

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