Seismic testing in Aromas could be a precursor to oil exploration and fracking.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
When earth-shaking trucks pulled out of Aromas last week, it marked the end of a two-year exploration of potential oil and gas deposits.
Watsonville-based Freedom Resources formed in February 2010 to research the geology of the region, an unincorporated area shared by Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. Most of the land explored is owned by the building-materials company Graniterock.
What Freedom plans to do with the info isn’t clear. But 50 neighbors, concerned about oil exploration in their backyards, have formed Aromas Cares for our Environment to act as a watchdog.
“We don’t have a position to advocate,” ACE spokeswoman Pat Lerman says. “We’re just trying to get ourselves up to speed about what’s going on.”
Recently, that’s been seismic testing by Signal Hill-based Nodal Seismic. Nodal creates 3-D maps of underground terrain by reading sound waves that bounce back to the surface.
Nodal spokeswoman Rachel Stocking directed questions to project manager Albion Partners, noting that project-specific information is confidential.
Jeff Austin of Albion Partners is Freedom Resources’ designated spokesman and community liaison for the project. He says he went door to door in the River Oaks neighborhood to talk to residents as Nodal’s trucks pulled up.
But additional details are hard to come by. Austin won’t name Freedom’s executives or investors, but he says they’ve got a local P.O. box. “In this industry, people tend to hold their cards close to their chest,” he explains.
Austin says it’s too soon to say what Freedom, a research company, will do with Nodal’s data. He cites Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and the U.S. Geological Survey – as well as oil operators – as potential users of the information. “One end result of the data is to check the potential of the area for hydrocarbons,” he says.
He won’t say what Freedom’s spent on its underground mapping so far, but he says there’s no client – from academia or the oil industry – backing the company. “Freedom has organized and paid for this out of their pocket,” he says.
Salinas-based environmental consultant Maureen Wruck, whose clients include California and Texas oil operators, says that’s unusual. “You usually have a reason to be out there,” she says. “We’re not just running around the country thumping the ground and hoping to sell [the data] at a later date. It costs too much to do that.”
The region’s been drilled for oil in the past, and Stephan Graham, associate dean of research at Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, speculates there’s a good chance Freedom hopes to crack open oil reserves.
“It’s known that there is some petroleum in that area,” he says. “With oil prices the way they are, it isn’t surprising that somebody might be coming along with better technology to look for missed opportunities.”
Graham says an operator would likely take one of three approaches to the Aromas region: return to abandoned oil fields with more efficient drilling techniques, go deeper than earlier technology allowed, or use hydraulic fracturing, a process through which operators inject a blend of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure through rock formations to free up oil or gas.
That practice, known as fracking, has been used to access oil in the Monterey Shale formation across Central California, a formation that extends below Aromas. “I’m sure most of the attention is going to be focused on the Monterey Shale,” Graham says. “It makes good sense.”