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Thermal Drilling Causes Earthquakes

Buried in the newly Christened named ‘Energy & Environment’ section of the New York Times:

Deep in Bedrock, Clean Energy and Quake Fears


June 24, 2009

BASEL, Switzerland — Markus O. Häring, a former oilman, was a hero in this city of medieval cathedrals and intense environmental passion three years ago, all because he had drilled a hole three miles deep near the corner of Neuhaus Street and Shafer Lane.

He was prospecting for a vast source of clean, renewable energy that seemed straight out of a Jules Verne novel: the heat simmering within the earth’s bedrock.

All seemed to be going well — until Dec. 8, 2006, when the project set off an earthquake, shaking and damaging buildings and terrifying many in a city that, as every schoolchild here learns, had been devastated exactly 650 years before by a quake that sent two steeples of the Münster Cathedral tumbling into the Rhine.

Hastily shut down, Mr. Häring’s project was soon forgotten by nearly everyone outside Switzerland. As early as this week, though, an American start-up company, AltaRock Energy, will begin using nearly the same method to drill deep into ground laced with fault lines in an area two hours’ drive north of San Francisco.

Residents of the region, which straddles Lake and Sonoma Counties, have already been protesting swarms of smaller earthquakes set off by a less geologically invasive set of energy projects there. AltaRock officials said that they chose the spot in part because the history of mostly small quakes reassured them that the risks were limited.

Like the effort in Basel, the new project will tap geothermal energy by fracturing hard rock more than two miles deep to extract its heat. AltaRock, founded by Susan Petty, a veteran geothermal researcher, has secured more than $36 million from the Energy Department, several large venture-capital firms, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Google. AltaRock maintains that it will steer clear of large faults and that it can operate safely.

But in a report on seismic impact that AltaRock was required to file, the company failed to mention that the Basel program was shut down because of the earthquake it caused. AltaRock claimed it was uncertain that the project had caused the quake, even though Swiss government seismologists and officials on the Basel project agreed that it did. Nor did AltaRock mention the thousands of smaller earthquakes induced by the Basel project that continued for months after it shut down.

The California project is the first of dozens that could be operating in the United States in the next several years, driven by a push to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases and the Obama administration’s support for renewable energy.

Geothermal’s potential as a clean energy source has raised huge hopes, and its advocates believe it could put a significant dent in American dependence on fossil fuels — potentially supplying roughly 15 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030, according to one estimate by Google. The earth’s heat is always there waiting to be tapped, unlike wind and solar power, which are intermittent and thus more fickle. According to a 2007 geothermal report financed by the Energy Department, advanced geothermal power could in theory produce as much as 60,000 times the nation’s annual energy usage. President Obama, in a news conference Tuesday, cited geothermal power as part of the “clean energy transformation” that a climate bill now before Congress could bring about.

Dan W. Reicher, an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration who is now director of climate change and energy at Google’s investment and philanthropic arm, said geothermal energy had “the potential to deliver vast amounts of power almost anywhere in the world, 24/7.”

Power companies have long produced limited amounts of geothermal energy by tapping shallow steam beds, often beneath geysers or vents called fumaroles. Even those projects can induce earthquakes, although most are small. But for geothermal energy to be used more widely, engineers need to find a way to draw on the heat at deeper levels percolating in the earth’s core.

Some geothermal advocates believe the method used in Basel, and to be tried in California, could be that breakthrough. But because large earthquakes tend to originate at great depths, breaking rock that far down carries more serious risk, seismologists say. Seismologists have long known that human activities can trigger quakes, but they say the science is not developed enough to say for certain what will or will not set off a major temblor.

Even so, there is no shortage of money for testing the idea. Mr. Reicher has overseen a $6.25 million investment by Google in AltaRock, and with more than $200 million in new federal money for geothermal, the Energy Department has already approved financing for related projects in Idaho by the University of Utah; in Nevada by Ormat Technologies; and in California by Calpine, just a few miles from AltaRock’s project

Steven E. Koonin, the under secretary for science at the Energy Department, said the earthquake issue was new to him, but added, “We’re committed to doing things in a factual and rigorous way, and if there is a problem, we will attend to it.”

Although no serious injuries were reported, Geothermal Explorers’ insurance company ultimately paid more than $8 million in mostly minor damage claims to the owners of thousands of houses in Switzerland and in neighboring Germany and France…

In the United States, where the Basel earthquakes received little news coverage, the fortunes of geothermal energy were already on a dizzying rise. The optimistic conclusions of the Energy Department’s geothermal report began driving interest from investors, as word trickled out before its official release…

The Basel earthquake hit more than a month before the Energy Department’s report came out, but no reference to it was included in the report’s spare and reassuring references to earthquake risks

Residents have been fighting for years with California power companies over the earthquakes, occasionally winning modest financial compensation. But the obscure nature of earthquakes always gives the companies an out, says Douglas Bartlett, who works in marketing at Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, and with his wife, Susan, owns a bungalow in town.

“If they were creating tornadoes, they would be shut down immediately,” Mr. Bartlett said. “But because it’s under the ground, where you can’t see it, and somewhat conjectural, they keep doing it.” …

Every day we learn more and more that throws cold water on the alternate energy sources that have been touted by the rabid environmentalists for so long.

And yet these alternatives are still treated as if they are viable.

Why is that?

This article was posted by Steve on Friday, June 26th, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Thermal Drilling Causes Earthquakes”

  1. untrainable says:

    At last! Hope of left wing San Francisco finally dropping off into the ocean.
    Talk about a “Man Made Catastrophe”!

    Didn’t Lex Luthor try something like this in a Superman movie? Buy Real Estate in Nevada. Pretty soon geothermal drilling will get you some prime oceanfront property.

    If San Francisco is under water, do they still get representation in congress??

  2. Petronius says:

    SG: “And yet these alternatives are still treated as if they are viable.”

    Calpine Corp. is mentioned near the end of this article as one of the recipients of the additional $200M in federal geothermal seed money (that’s $200M in addition to the $36M doled out to AltaRock). Like AltaRock, Calpine had roots in Switzerland, and it was a pioneer in California geothermal. Unfortunately the geothermal business didn’t pan out for Calpine, and the company went bankrupt a few years ago, wiping out its shareholders and bondholders. Calpine reorganized in 2008 and is now back for another attempt, this time with taxpayer money in addition to investment capital.

    Hope springs eternal.

  3. texaspsue says:

    Just watch, in the future the Dems. will change their mind. Wait until the environmentalists realize how toxic all of those disposed batteries are going to be. (Not to mention how dangerous the little smart cars are when you have a wreck in one.)

    Most Liberals don’t have the first clue about alternative energy and how inefficient it is. If they did they wouldn’t be trying to substitute perfectly fine, natural (yes I said natural) energy sources: oil, gas, coal, etc. Which in the grand scheme of things is less dangerous and more cost effective.

    Okay Texas, it’s time to secede. ;-)

  4. GetBackJack says:

    Out here on the border of Utah and Colorado there’s a curious and wonderfully remote place called Paradox Valley, and a wide spot on CO Hwy 90 that runs the length of it improbably named Bedrock.

    And earthquake swarms. From waste water deep injection programs. Run by the federal government. Injecting directly into fault lines. Let me repeat that … directly into fault lines.

    In the key concentration of uranium mining in the United States.


    Reminds me of the time oil companies talked the federal government into firing off a NUCLEAR WEAPON out here just outside Rifle, CO at Rio Blanco in order to crack deep formations of natural gas.

    A nuclear weapon detonation.

    By the federal government.

    For energy.

    Sweet Babbling Buddha ….

  5. joeblough says:

    Sometimes it seems to me that anything you can imagine, somebody will believe and/or try to do.

    It’s almost as if the human mind were a random idea generator and the only thing that keeps us alive is our ability to review the idiocies we ourselves produce in the privacy of our minds, and reject them.

    So help me, I’ve seen at least three late night TV movies on the events in that article above.

    It seems that some folks’ internal garbage collectors are jammed.

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