Every 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.