Kristin Olsen Ignores Environmental Concerns About Mining Oil, by Bruce Frohman

Desolation Row?
Desolation Row?

In a March 22nd opinion piece appearing in the Modesto Bee, State Assembly Member Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, advocated mining for oil on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Ms. Olsen said that an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of oil are locked in the rocks of the “Monterey Shale Formation,” which extends from Kern County in the south to Stanislaus County in the north.

Olsen asserted that large scale mining could add as many as 512,000 jobs in 2015 to 2.8 million new jobs by 2020.  She also stated that environmental groups from outside the Valley want to stop the mining, dismissing them as “disingenuous” regarding the health and welfare of Central Valley citizens.

Ms. Olsen’s assertions are too good to be true. When folks see dollar signs, they often put on blinders to reality.

The Reality

Many other sources of oil are preferable to mining the Monterey Formation. The cost to mine oil from shale rock substantially exceeds other sources of oil. While the technology for extraction has brought down the cost to recover oil from shale, it is still much more expensive than oil field drilling.  Mining from the Monterey Formation will NOT bring down California gasoline prices.

“Faulty” Geology

Much of the Monterey Formation is located close to the San Andreas Fault in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley and lateral faults extend all the way north through Stanislaus County. Before mining can begin, studies are needed to gauge the potential impact mining may have on nearby fault movement. While earthquakes cannot be reliably predicted, geologists know enough about faults to understand what can trigger them.

Environmental Considerations

A number of environmental factors such as potential ground and surface water contamination, toxic waste creation and disposal, and air pollution need to be considered. Mining activity can add substantial health costs to the general public, especially since the southern San Joaquin Valley is already a serious air quality non-attainment area.

The Misleading Promise of Jobs

Shale rock mining requires skilled laborers. The promise of hundreds of thousands of high paying jobs for local residents is not likely to be delivered. Instead, there will be a nationwide call for skilled workers who will swell Valley populations during the oil rush, but leave the community when the rush ends. No permanent industry will be created.

Lack of Infrastructure

Current infrastructure is inadequate to support an oil shale mining boom. Given the number of workers needed to mine a 250 mile long stretch, there’s not enough housing anywhere near the proposed mines. Therefore, towns will be built to provide housing for the workers. Roads will also have to be built into the oil fields and mountains.

Future Ghost Towns and Blight

When the oil reserves are played out, the towns will be abandoned, leaving blight upon the land, much like the old California gold rush towns, with numerous abandoned mines and buildings.

Anyone wishing to see what an old mining town looks like can visit Bodie State Park east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The environmental damage is tremendous and the land is now useless. The population is zero. One can also visit the various abandoned mining districts in the state of Nevada. The more likely scenario is that the modern mining methods will leave the extraction sites looking like large parts of West Virginia, the ultimate environmental disaster.

Who is Really Disingenuous?

Rather than dismiss environmental groups as disingenuous, their real concerns need to be addressed. After the analysis is done, the inevitable conclusion will be that the  Valley will not benefit from mining the Monterey Shale Formation. Mining will bring urban decay, health problems, environmental degradation, and large areas of unusable land due to contaminated ground and water.


Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
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  1. Eric, you/Bruce have written a superb article on the many dangers in fracking. I wrote a rebuttal to Olsen’s piece that was published in the Bee on March 26, with the online version available on the 28th. Here is the link: :
    I have since submitted a correction – the funding source for the USC report was not the RAND Corp, but the Western States Petroleum Association.
    Do you think July Sly would accept your article? We made several similar points, but I was restricted by the 500 word limit. Your article really needs to be read in its entirety by the wider Bee audience.
    BTW – I didn’t receive the email with the link to VC last week – please check that my email address is still on your listserv.
    Thanks, again, for covering these important topics.

    • Hi Anita, I appreciated your article very much and I’m glad you liked Bruce’s fine work. Bruce submits letters to the Bee often. I prefer to post often and choose my own topics, both of which are forbidden by Bee policies. I hope you will continue to submit to the Bee. Keep watching for more of Bruce’s fine work. I hope you followed his reporting on Highway 132 and toxic barium.

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