Could AltaRock's Geothermal Project Start California's Next Earthquake?

geothermalEvery renewable energy source has its downside—nuclear power uses radioactive material, wind turbines generate noise complaints, solar production can leach chemicals into water supplies, and geothermal projects...cause earthquakes? In 2006, former oilman Markus O. Häring sparked a magnitude 3.4 earthquake in Basel, Switzerland when he drilled a three-mile deep hole in a search for geothermal energy. Thousands of smaller earthquakes followed.

Now Google-backed Altarock Energy wants to use the same method to drill two hours north of San Francisco in an area already threatened by plentiful faults. For its part, Altarock claims that it has learned the lessons of the Basel debacle and is using superior monitoring and fail-safe systems. But the company didn't mention Basel's earthquake in a report on potential seismic impact, and Richard Estebrook, a petroleum engineer who helped grant permits for the Altarock project, said he didn't know about it either. Altarock, however, did know about the Swiss quake. The company claims that it wasn't entirely sure that the drilling caused the earthquake, even though Swiss officials all said that it did.

So in reality, nobody knows for sure if Altarock's new project will cause a significant quake. But shouldn't we take a moment to actually find out before getting too drill-happy? California already deals with its fair share of earthquakes, and any potential benefits of clean geothermal energy will be offset if the area surrounding Altarock's project suffers calamity.

[Via The New York Times]

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  • Drew Highmann

    Just a clarification for the readers. The drilling is NOT the problem. The problem is what happens after the hole is drilled; the FRACTURING of the rock (forcing waste water into the earth and breaking it apart like a "fractured" bone) . Oil companies have drilled that deep all around California (and the world) for decades without a problem. Even when they put water into their oil wells to lift out the oil it does not fracture the earth. I loved how the article pointed out the info on the Basel quake, which AltaRock kept hidden from the government regulators who were supposed to look out for the tax payers who are now having their homes destroyed by all these quakes in the Anderson Lakes area. Competition will solve the energy crisis. Government subsidies (ARRA monies) only serve to further an agenda (supporting unsustainable businesses) and not a technology. BTW, maybe as a follow on article you could address for the readers how much water is lost (wasted) by geothermal energy projects. I believe from the 2000MW of installed geothermal capacity in California only 800MW can now be generated because they ran the natural geysers dry setting 1200MW of installed capacity idle. And another thought; what happens to the heavy metals from below the ground that the steam carries into the atmosphere before it again condenses and falls back to earth only to later leach again into the soil. Again great article but there’s more wrong with EGS than right. It’s a shame our government isn’t smart enough to figure it out. Maybe great journalists and the public can keep up this quality reporting so society doesn’t keep getting screwed.