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Monterey, Bakken Shales Are Polar Opposites, Experts Say

As the industry moves along its steep learning curve dealing with the shale revolution, it is becoming clearer there is no real comparison between California's Monterey Shale and North Dakota's Bakken Shale. They are night-and-day opposites, according to several industry speakers at a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) conference Tuesday in Los Angeles.

There are a number of technical factors that still need to be overcome to unlock the Monterey Shale, and their absence in the booming Bakken is an instructive, stark contrast, according to Daniel Tormey, a principal with ENVIRON's Los Angeles office, and echoed by two other speakers at the Law Seminars International workshop, "Hydraulic Fracturing in California."

"The first critical element is geology, which is the clearest comparison to the Bakken," said Tormey, stressing that North Dakota has what is recognized as a "layer-cake" geology characterized by long, clearly delineated layers of strata under the earth's surface. "Things are relatively flat, and the Bakken Shale is flat, continuous and easy to find for up to a two-mile-long horizontal wells, one long straw basically."

This is diametrically different from the Monterey Shale, which Tormey describes as having "an unusual amount of faulting, folding, rotation and offshore cross-sections, resulting in extremely high percentages of oil when you find it, but it is less continuous." He said that is probably the most significant of a number of features that are starkly different between the two plays.

In the Monterey, there is also a "fair degree" of carbonates in parts of the shale, causing exploration and production companies to try to inject acids, rather than fracking, to open up the shale.

Former oil industry attorney Eric Adair, a co-chair of the seminar, said the ideal in such layer-cake geology is to find the "frosting" and drill horizontally through it for long distances.

The disparity between the two shales needs to be considered more in making economic assumptions about what the Monterey's potential is in California, compared to what the Bakken has already meant to North Dakota as an economic engine, said Joanna Meldrum, a former geologist and now land-use attorney with Holland & Knight LLP in San Francisco.

"California is clearly not North Dakota," Meldrum said. "There is more uncertainty about resource recovery, more regulation and more public opposition in California." She thinks studies that predict California can have the same exponential economic growth from shale as North Dakota fail to take this into consideration.

Some people in the industry are saying they may need to leave the state to find better prospects for future growth, Meldrum said.  "To me there is no comparison. The Bakken is more uniform, it is shallower and bigger than the Monterey. All in all, the Bakken is just much easier to get the oil out of.

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