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The US Energy Information Administration on Wednesday said it has never expected much actual crude production from California's Monterey Shale, due to the fraught economics of drilling into the complex formation.

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The agency drastically cut its estimate of "technically recoverable resources" from the Monterey Shale by 96%, from 13.7 billion barrels in a 2012 study to 600 million barrels in a study to be released next month.

But though the cut made headlines Wednesday, EIA spokesman Jonathan Cogan downplayed its significance, saying the agency has long noted the unlikelihood that anywhere close to the entire resource would be produced.

"Clearly, there is not a proportional relationship between [total recoverable resources] and production estimates," Cogan said in an email. "Economics matters, and the Monterey play faced significant economic challenges regardless of the TRR estimate."

The Los Angeles Times first reported Wednesday morning that the EIA intends to slash its Monterey Shale resource estimate in an addendum to its 2014 Annual Energy Outlook. That estimate considers all the crude that can extracted using existing technology, regardless of how much it might cost.

But in terms of economically recoverable production, Cogan said the EIA's 2014 AEO reference case projects the Monterey play to average 57,000 b/d between 2010 and 2040, which is actually an increase from its 2013 AEO estimate of 14,000 b/d.

"While TRR is a useful concept, changes in play-level TRR estimates do not necessarily have significant implications for projected oil and natural gas production, which are heavily influenced by economic considerations that do not enter into the estimation of TRR," Cogan said.

The oil industry and its advocates in Congress have viewed the Monterey Shale as a potential mother lode of crude, and the EIA's 2011 estimate that the formation contained 13.7 billion technically recovered barrels sparked immense interest in the play.

The formation, which runs across most of California, is unlike the Bakken and Eagle Ford, however, in that it is heavily deformed, twisted and splintered, due to earthquake faults running through the area. Drillers have so far struggled to produce the play profitably.

The industry maintains that advances in technology can help make the Monterey Shale more economically feasible to develop.

David Quast, the California director of Energy in Depth, a pro-fracking group sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, noted that the US Geological Survey in 1995 estimated that the Bakken Shale in North Dakota contained just 151 million barrels of recoverable oil, only to significantly boost that projection in 2008 to 3-4 billion barrels, and then again doubling it last year.

"To believe that some companies won?t invest in the development of the Monterey Shale in the long-term, though, is to believe that American (and particularly Californian) innovation has peaked," he said in a statement on Energy in Depth's website. "After all, technology only advances."

But fracking and acid stimulation, a drilling technique that industry advocates say can unlock Monterey Shale deposits, are increasingly under scrutiny in California, with regulators drafting rules on oil drilling. Santa Cruz on Tuesday became the first California county to impose an outright ban on fracking.

The EIA said it cut its TRR estimate because drillers have yet to prove much success in the play. It also incorporated new information about the formation compiled by the US Geological Survey.

"TRR estimates will likely continue to evolve over time as technology advances and as additional geologic information and results from drilling activity provide a basis for further updates," Cogan said.

--Herman Wang,
--Edited by Derek Sands,