Why The Shale Boom Left California Behind

Scores of oil pumps in the Kern River Oil Field, with rolling hills covered by haze in the background.

This week I am creating slides for a presentation I am giving in California later this month. While researching the material, I took a closer look at the history of California’s oil industry.

California’s Historical Importance

Many people are unaware about California’s importance in the U.S. oil industry. In fact, 100 years ago California was the top oil producer in the U.S., responsible at one point for nearly 40% of U.S. oil production.

California’s oil production rose throughout most of the 20th century, briefly eclipsing one million barrels per day in the early 1980s. Oil production began to decline thereafter peaking in 1985.

The same pattern took place in many other states, and in fact was the case for the entire U.S., where oil production peaked in 1970 and then declined over the next 35 years.

The Shale Boom Arrives

But the shale boom changed the trajectory of U.S. oil production. Oil production that had fallen for decades reversed direction and began to surge about a decade ago. Almost every state with shale oil resources saw a similar surge in production.

Since 2010, U.S. oil production has increased by 131%, with huge gains in oil production in the following states (among others):

  • North Dakota – up 634%
  • Colorado – up 508%
  • New Mexico – up 377%
  • Texas – up 330%
  • Oklahoma – up 238%

In fact, only three major oil-producing states have seen a decline in oil production since 2010: California, Louisiana, and Alaska. One of the graphics I created for my presentation shows the stark contrast between oil production in Texas and California as the shale boom unfolded.

California is missing the shale boom.

During the 1980s and 1990s, oil production in Texas was declining faster than it was in California. Had that trajectory been maintained, oil production in Texas may have fallen below California’s in about 2010.

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Gary Anderson 6 months ago Contributor's comment

I cannot believe that earthquakes in Oklahoma were not mentioned as a reason Californians are extremely opposed to fracking. I have been in a major quake in 1983 in Coalinga, California. If anyone has never been in a major earthquake, they are pretty much clueless as to the danger. There were baseball players sitting in a dugout during the Coalinga quake, and the pitcher's mound disappeared from their view. Fracking is an unacceptable major risk in the minds of most Californians who are vulnerable to mother nature in many ways without fracking being added to the mix.

Robert Rapier 6 months ago Author's comment

I actually discuss this in the presentation. I didn't get into it here, because it requires a bit more nuance than "fracking causes earthquakes." So in the presentation I explain that most of the earthquakes in Oklahoma are a result of wastewater injection, but fracking itself has been implicated in some earthquakes (a small portion in Oklahoma) but a higher percentage in other shale plays. I just didn't want to get into all that in this article.

Gary Anderson 6 months ago Contributor's comment

So, yes, the injection of water is said to be the cause of most quakes in Oklahoma. But isn't that process tied to fracking? Is it possible to avoid the injections and still carry out fracking?

Robert Rapier 6 months ago Author's comment

It would be possible to inject the water deeper, but they don't do it for economic reasons. But there are places where the fault is near the oil-producing zone. In those cases, it's the fracking that can directly cause an earthquake. Not sure of the situation in California, but it would in any case be a touchy subject.

Craig Newman 6 months ago Member's comment

Found this very interesting, thanks.