Region 5: The Pacific Border

Including both the Coastal Range and the San Joaquin Valley, the Pacific Border’s topographic variation allows for a variety of energy production methods. The Coastal Range provides ample hydroelectric and wind energy capability, and the flat desert lands of the San Joaquin Valley makes the generation of solar power profitable. The vast acreage of forests also provides material for biomass and wood burning power plants.

Figure 7.4: Oil and gas production in the Western US.

Figure 7.4: Oil and gas production in the Western US.

Coastal California has long been a resource for the extraction, export, import, and refining of oil and gas, with the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles, and San Francisco being the main hubs. Ranking third in the nation for crude oil production, refineries and terminal storage facilities dot the area. And with the “car culture” and lack of public transportation in most of California, the demand for and flow of oil has continued unabated over the last century California’s vast oil production is the result of several large sedimentary basins, complex geology creating significant traps, and more recently, the development of large offshore oil fields (Figure 7.4). California’s first productive well was drilled in the Central Valley in 1865. This area, east of San Francisco, became the scene of heavy drilling activity through the rest of the 1800s, providing enough oil for the nearby market of San Francisco. The Los Angeles Basin, first drilled in 1892, ultimately turned out to contain the most productive fields in the state. By the early 1920s, California was the source of one-quarter of the world’s entire output of oil, due in large part to the high productivity of the Long Beach Field.

The source for most of California’s oil is sandstone from coastal marine deposits, particularly the Monterey Formation (formed during the Miocene epoch, but which also includes other units into the Pliocene). This oil has generally been tapped through conventional drilling in places where the oil migrated to and became trapped in other formations. The Monterey Formation is porous, and is estimated to retain a large but uncertain amount of oil that could be reached through unconventional drilling, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Although there is economic interest in such drilling, there is also concern about associated environmental impacts.

Nuclear power also plays a part in the region’s energy production, but when the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Southern California was decommissioned in 2012, the state’s nuclear energy production was cut in half, from about 4000 MW to about 2000 MW. Because of the loss of this power source, California has had to rely more heavily on natural gas-powered energy plants, and the California Air Resources Board estimates that through the loss of the “clean” nuclear energy and an increase in the use of natural gas, air pollution in the area has increased by about 25%. The Diablo Nuclear Facility in San Luis Obispo, California and the Columbia Generating Station in Richland, Washington are the only two operating nuclear energy plants on the West Coast.

Oil and Gas

Oil and gas form from organic matter in the pores of sedimentary rocks. Shale in particular is often organic-rich, because organic matter settles and accumulates in the same places that fine clay and silt particles settle out of the water. Further, such quiet waters are often relatively stagnant and low in oxygen, thus organic matter decay is slow. Because oil and gas are under pressure, they will move to areas of lower pressure, gradually upward, through tiny connections between pore spaces and natural fractures in the rocks.

Often, natural gas and oil are trapped below the surface under impermeable layers that do not have sufficient spaces for liquids and gases to travel through. Folds or “arches” in impermeable layers, or faults in rock layers, are common ways of trapping oil and gas below the surface. Most oil and gas has been extracted using the “conventional” technique of seeking such reservoirs and drilling into them, allowing the gas or oil to come to the surface through a vertical well.

Some impermeable layers contain oil and gas that has never escaped. In the 2000s, the fossil fuel industry began to access these resources through a method, known as high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing, that creates thousands of small fractures along impermeable rock layers. The method has greatly increased oil and gas production, but has also been a very controversial topic involving the issues of environmental impact and carbon emissions.

Despite the Pacific Border’s reliance on fossil fuels, California, Oregon, and Washington are nevertheless leading the way by providing incentives and programs to significantly decrease energy consumption and increase renewable energy production and use. Although Washington and Oregon lead the nation in hydroelectric power generation, both states have initiated significant financial incentives for increasing photovoltaic, biomass, and wind energy production. California currently ranks 48th in the nation in terms of per capita consumption of energy, and its incentive programs and resources for geothermal and other renewable sources of energy have ranked first in the nation in these categories. California is also first in large-scale wind energy production in the US. In fact, the Altamont Pass Wind Farm, with 4930 wind turbines that produce 1.1 terawatt-hours (TWh) yearly, is the largest array of wind turbines with the greatest production capacity in the world. In addition, The Geysers geothermal field in California is currently the world’s largest complex of geothermal power plants, containing 22 plants that generate an average of 955 MW (Figure 7.5).

Figure 7.5: The Sonoma Calpine 3 power plant, one of 22 power plants at The Geysers field in 
the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, northern California.

Figure 7.5: The Sonoma Calpine 3 power plant, one of 22 power plants at The Geysers field in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma County, northern California.