Opinion: Is that a fracking earthquake?


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Environmentalists: Prepare to be shaken up. It turns out that hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, a.k.a. the latest fossil fuel industry outrage to be perpetrated on planet Earth, isn’t just a menace because it may be contaminating groundwater. It also can cause earthquakes.

Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday that a preliminary report on the relationship between a fracking waste disposal well near Youngstown and a series of minor earthquakes in northeastern Ohio last year found evidence ‘strongly indicating the Youngstown-area earthquakes were induced.’ What the frack does this mean? In addition to giving anti-frackers something else to complain about, it means companies drilling for natural gas will probably face a host of new regulatory restrictions aimed at ensuring they don’t do anything earth shattering in the future. In Ohio, regulators announced a series of new rules for disposing of and transporting brine, a waste product from fracking, and they’re likely to spread.


That’s not a bad thing. But before greens who aim to restrict or ban fracking get too worked up about this new entry to the list of its dangers, they should consider that very similar risks also apply to another energy source considered by many -- including Al Gore and President Obama -- to be among the world’s great hopes of fending off climate change and weaning us off fossil fuels: geothermal.

The principles involved in fracking and geothermal power production are similar: In both cases, one drills deep into the earth and injects water (combined with other chemicals, in the case of fracking) into fissures. Geothermal energy is produced when hot rock turns the water to steam, which returns to the surface and is used to turn generators. In fracking, the chemicals are used to force natural gas to the surface. Very little seismic activity has been attributed to the process of fracking itself, but things get more dangerous around disposal wells such as the one in Ohio, in which the waste water or brine from fracking is dispensed with by being reinjected, and far more liquid is involved.

In his book ‘Our Choice,’ Al Gore says of geothermal energy, ‘Like solar energy and wind power, geothermal energy could -- if properly developed -- match all of the energy from coal, gas and oil combined.’ Obama’s stimulus package, meanwhile, contained $350 million for development of geothermal projects. It’s easy to see what they’re so heated up about. Unlike wind and solar power, whose generation stops when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, the Earth’s magma is always hot, and geothermal power production emits only steam. But it turns out that when you inject water into hot fissures, it cracks them, and deep underground shifts can cause considerable surface rumbling. After a major geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, had to be shut down because it caused quakes that rattled that city in 2009, one of the nation’s biggest projects to pursue the technology (located near my hometown of Santa Rosa) was tabled. The company behind it, AltaRock Energy, is now carrying out experiments in a sparsely populated area in central Oregon instead.

Regulators are right to insist on maximum standards to protect the public from such risky practices, and it’s a very good idea to hold off on major projects until more is known about the science. But those who seek to ban fracking because of its earthquake risks should consider the more beneficial technologies they may be quashing. Geothermal power has vast potential, but until we get to a cleaner future, we’re going to need more natural gas as a transitional fuel. Pursuing both is richly worthwhile, if it can be done safely.


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-- Dan Turner