Looking for oil in Fresno County

FRESNO, Calif.

On the Westside of Fresno County, among the oil wells, sits a huge tower stretching into the sky with several giant mirrors on the ground. When completed, Chevron will use the solar power to produce steam, to inject into older wells, and bring up even more oil.

More than six million barrels of oil were pulled up from the ground in Fresno County, and the oil industry is optimistic about more opportunities in the Valley, and across California.

Some oil companies estimate 300 billion to a trillion barrels of oil are in this rock formation located in the Valley and all across California, called Monterey Shale, But experts believe only five to ten percent of the oil is recoverable right now.

Tupper Hull, Western States Petroleum Association said, "There is a tremendous difference between estimates of oil in the ground and what ultimately can be brought to market."

The Bureau of Land Management is putting four parcels of land in Fresno County featuring Monterey Shale, up for auction this September.

Coalinga city manager Bill Skinner sees the economic benefits of more oil production in the Valley.

The oil industry estimates its responsible for about 350 thousand high paying, secure jobs in California, and more production, means more jobs.

"Well operators, pump operators, they're all located here," said Bill Skinner. So we get that additional boost in our economy for our mom and pop businesses as well."

California produced 280 million barrels of oil in 2009. Just 40% of the total amount it uses. Increased production could reduce the big fluctuations we see in gas prices at the pump.

"More oil production has a tendency to reduce volatility," said Tupper Hull. "Because you have a reliable and accessible supply that is less subject to some political turmoil.

Environmentalists say forget the oil boom... there's a green energy boom. Instead of focusing on more oil, California should be supporting renewable energy like solar and wind power.

"We don't have to continue drilling for more oil, exploring for more fossil fuels," said Jennifer Krill. "And it's urgent that we begin this transition to a clean energy future.

Another environmental concern is a drilling technique used in oil and natural gas exploration, called hydraulic fracturing operations, or fracking. Basically, sand is mixed with water and chemicals, pressurized, then shot into the ground to break up the rock to make it easier to extract the oil or gas. Environmentalists are concerned about potential groundwater contamination.

Action News didn't find any fracking operations just outside Coalinga, but state officials say it is used in the San Joaquin Valley.

The state assembly recently passed a bill, requiring companies to disclose where fracking takes place, and what chemicals are used.

"The public hasn't known it's been happening," said Jennifer Krill. "We haven't been told what chemicals are being used.

As energy demands increase across California, what lies beneath or above the valley could keep the state moving for years to come.

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