06/26/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Can Jerry Brown Go Brown?

California's governor, Jerry Brown, rode into office two years ago promising to create a half a million green jobs. But he is now veering towards the economic potential of his state's Monterey Shale, which contains roughly two-thirds of the country's shale oil reserves, as estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Brown's dalliance with hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the drilling technique used to extract shale oil, has riled California's environmentalists so much that they have formed a new coalition, Californians Against Fracking, to get the practice banned. "Naturally there is a sense of betrayal. Not only is Brown hurting his own green image, he is also putting California's future in jeopardy," says Kristin Lynch, Pacific region director for Food & Water Watch, a member of the coalition.

Brown has compulsions of his own. At 9.0 percent, his state has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country. Shale oil exploration has helped lower North Dakota's figure to 3.3 percent, and Texas's to 6.4 percent, even though both states have less than a quarter of California's reserves.

Oil has been drilled in California for over a century. The bobbing jacks that are scattered all around Bakersfield, a town about a hundred miles northwest of Los Angeles, continue to pump oil from shallow wells that typically go only hundreds of feet deep. However, the Monterey, which underlies Bakersfield, is situated at least a couple of miles underground. It stretches across nearly two thousand square miles of Central and Southern California, which has galvanized supporters of fracking.

By drilling much deeper and wider than traditional methods, they hope to obtain new oil in the billions of barrels. "Whatever water and chemicals are injected into the earth during fracturing, stay there," asserts Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, an advocacy group. "They are buried a few miles under impermeable rock so they don't have a chance of contaminating groundwater which is found far above."

Lynch disagrees. She believes that the Monterey has so many fractures that any carcinogenic chemicals used in fracking will inevitably seep up. There is also the possibility of methane gas filtering up from oil beds and polluting the environment.

In other parts of the country shale oil has created jobs and enriched those farmers who have leased their lands for exploration. Some farmers in California will no doubt be tempted by sudden wealth if fracking is allowed there. But others consider groundwater as their lifeblood and fret that it will be sullied. Fracking also requires vast amounts of water. Where will it come from? And will not oilmen, with their deep pockets, easily outbid farmers for the scarce resource?

Opponents of fracking insist on stringent regulations in the hope of thwarting it. They demand that landowners be notified where and when new wells are going to be dug. They want the wholesomeness of groundwater to be maintained, as well as full disclosure of chemicals used in the process. Proponents of fracking remonstrate against the proposed standards, fearing that they will prove to be insurmountable.

Environmental groups have already sued state regulators for insufficiently monitoring the practice. In a poll just released jointly by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times, 58 percent of respondents want a moratorium imposed on fracking until its sustainability passes independent muster. When asked when that might be, Lynch of Food Water & Watch avers, never.

With passion so inflamed, the fate of shale oil in California could ultimately be decided by referendum. And if opinion polls are any indication, Brown might have to jettison his aspirations of, well, going brown.