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Man-made earthquakes
June 27, 2009 8:23 AM   Subscribe

There are worries that a new geothermal project in California may cause earthquakes (nice animation from NYT and here's the full article). These worries are not just theoretical, its happened before...

Enhanced Geothermal Systems (dry rock geothermal) are blamed for increased seismicity:
"The HDR project in Basel, Switzerland was suspended after it caused an earthquake. On 8 December 2006, only 8 days after water injection started, an event occurred measuring 3.4 on the Richter Scale with the focus at the bottom of the HDR borehole. The eventprompted concern from local residents. Water injection was immediately stopped, but minor events continued. Further tremors were recorded on 6 January (measuring 3.1) and 16 January 2007 (3.2)."

Short (12min) video segment from the California PBS science show Quest on geothermal in California (lots of details on EGS and California geothermal).
posted by 445supermag (33 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a political aside, via the wikipedia linked above:
"USDOE issued two Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) on March 4 2009 for enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). Together, the two FOAs offer up to $84 million over six years, including $20 million in fiscal year 2009 funding, although future funding is subject to congressional appropriations. The Bush Administration eliminated all geothermal energy research funding in 2007.
The DOE committed $1.6 million towards its EGS R&D project at Desert Peak."

posted by 445supermag at 8:30 AM on June 27, 2009


Whatever. Everyone knows earthquake weather causes earthquakes.
posted by univac at 8:51 AM on June 27, 2009


Earthquakes! Earthquakes, Eli, you boy. Drained dry. I'm so sorry. Here, if you have a tremor, and I have a tremor, and I have a straw. There it is, that's a straw, you see? You watching?. And my straw reaches acroooooooss the room, and starts to drink your earthquake... I... drink... your... earthquake!
posted by geoff. at 8:56 AM on June 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, Balrogs.

I have family up near all this, so it's of great interest- thank you for posting it.

posted by small_ruminant at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2009


Isn't is possible that using this technique to trigger a series of small tremors might relieve the strain on a fault line, and thus avoid a larger, more destructive earthquake?
posted by SPrintF at 8:59 AM on June 27, 2009


Well, if we had an earthquake maybe we'd get some of the federal money our worthless state government has been begging for. A 3.1 quake would only rattle the tourists, though. We need a Superman III level quake.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:07 AM on June 27, 2009


Paging Dr. Luthor, paging Dr. Lex Luthor...
posted by jamstigator at 9:44 AM on June 27, 2009


Eh, 3.4? There was a 4.4 magnitude quake recently in this area. The sheriff's official reply: "Some people need reassurance," Himmelrich said. "You'd think they'd be used to it by now; they're living in earthquake country."
posted by filthy light thief at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2009


i heard they exploded the underground blast...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:47 AM on June 27, 2009


Oh, and whenever I substitute its for it's, its done ironically, like up they're in the FPP. If you don't believe me, your stupid.
posted by 445supermag at 9:54 AM on June 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Basel earthquakes were also different from normal earthquakes felt in Basel. The ones generated from this felt far stronger and were extremely loud. You could hear the earth moving, as opposed to ones that normally strike the Basel region which are felt as a slight shaking under your feet.
posted by evilshell at 10:08 AM on June 27, 2009


As long as we get some unobtanium we should be able to counteract the effects of Project Destinii and we'll all be fine and then whales will sing to us. Net win!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 10:09 AM on June 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Otisburg?
posted by ed at 10:28 AM on June 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Between earthquakes, raging fires, drought and fiscal meltdown, California is barely inhabitable now anyway, so we might as well put our new slum to more productive use generating the nation's power.
posted by jamstigator at 10:36 AM on June 27, 2009


Isn't is possible that using this technique to trigger a series of small tremors might relieve the strain on a fault line, and thus avoid a larger, more destructive earthquake?

That's an intriguing idea, but I'd hate to be the one responisble for testing it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:37 AM on June 27, 2009


Wow, that's really interesting. It would be nice to know if the clustering of earthquakes already existed before the (existing, shallow) geothermal projects in the area. After all, it is the shallowest heat area in California.
posted by delmoi at 10:38 AM on June 27, 2009


To put this in perspective the Richter scale is logarithmic so a truly destructive earthquake - say 7 on the Richter scale - is not twice as big as earthquakes in the 3 to 4 range it actually involves 1,000x to 10,000x as much energy. So earthquakes triggered by geothermal projects are pretty small beer. They can be felt but they cause little or no damage.
As the project in Basel shows even a small earthquake can make people pretty jittery in a built up area - but even there real damage is minor.
The project in California is not in a heavily populated area, the people there are accustomed to minor 'quakes, building codes cope with them without difficulty and the possibility of a magnitude 7 event, while it is always present, is remote.
Regarding activating one of the major right lateral fault systems in the area? There has been a lot of speculation in that area since the '70s but no models (as far as I know) which have produced a magnitude 7 event - perhaps somebody more current in seismology could address this?
As to small quakes preventing a big one by letting the faults creep rather than snap? A nice thought - but no. These small events are local to the geothermal producing area, they do not represent creep along the lateral fault system.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richter_scale
posted by speug at 10:47 AM on June 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, duh. They're basically lubricating the fault line, aren't they?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:47 AM on June 27, 2009


It turns out the earthquakes are really a metaphor for some involving family drama.

Oh no wait that's Johnathan Franzen's Strong Motion.
posted by sixswitch at 10:50 AM on June 27, 2009


Wow, that's really interesting. It would be nice to know if the clustering of earthquakes already existed before the (existing, shallow) geothermal projects in the area. After all, it is the shallowest heat area in California.
The clusters are in a relatively remote area and, while the area was unquestionably seismically active, records of seismic events prior to geothermal development are sparse (actually non-existent for the smaller 'quakes.) Records over recent decades routinely include events down to magnitude -3 (yes, minus - it's a logarithmic scale) and there is no question that the small quakes are associated with, and caused by, geothermal development.
posted by speug at 10:52 AM on June 27, 2009


So can this only be done in certain types of rocks? The NYT articles seems to indicate that not only is the heat source shallow, the rocks in the area are prone to fissures that allow the heat exchange process to take place. Are we limited in doing it outside of shallow areas simply because it is difficult and expensive to drill or because the surrounding rock has to have a certain sponge character?
posted by geoff. at 12:09 PM on June 27, 2009


The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep.
You know what they awoke in the darkness
of Khazad-Dûm. Shadow and Flame!
posted by Muddler at 12:28 PM on June 27, 2009


Since this is geothermal, I just need to check -- does "Drill, Baby, Drill!" still apply?
posted by dhartung at 1:06 PM on June 27, 2009


Are we limited in doing it outside of shallow areas simply because it is difficult and expensive to drill or because the surrounding rock has to have a certain sponge character?

It's mainly due to the shallow heat in that area, because of thin lithospheric material. It sounds like they are fracturing the rocks with the water - i.e. they are not already fractured, but it is a common practice in petroleum drilling so I don't know why it wouldn't work here.

The clusters are in a relatively remote area

This is 90 miles north of San Francisco. That ain't remote.
posted by Big_B at 1:12 PM on June 27, 2009


This is 90 miles north of San Francisco. That ain't remote.

In terms of the clusters to which this comment referred 90 miles is indeed remote.

Local expansion, contraction and fracturing associated with a project of this type produces small local earthquakes commonly in the -3 to + 3 range. They are not coupled to the large scale lateral fault systems (e.g. the San Andreas) which have been the source of major events like the Loma Prieto earthquake. That San Andreas beauty (magnitude 7) caused damage up to sixty miles from the epicenter, courtesy of refraction.
(More representative of larger events perhaps was the Sylmar quake (magnitude 6.7) where severe damage extended to some 15 miles from the epicenter.)

In short the proposed activity will produce small local quakes (definitely an important consideration) but it will not unleash the fury of the San Andreas. (NOTE: Not trying to promote the project, I have no dog in this fight, just trying to provide some perspective.)

(Full disclosure - I don't even have a dog.)
posted by speug at 2:21 PM on June 27, 2009


This speculation would be much more exciting if The Geysers hadn't been doing the exact same thing in the same area for, oh, 100 years or so without either Lake or Sonoma County being destroyed by a giant earthquake.

These days they re-inject treated waste water to create their steam, keeping it from being dumped in the river and contributing to eutrophication and creating a win win for all involved. Except the people who lost their hot springs, of course.

And yes this is a remote area.
posted by fshgrl at 2:51 PM on June 27, 2009


As long as the quakes are less than 4.0, they're not too much of a bother. Above that, stuff falls of shelves and makes a mess. That in itself isn't so bad, but I'm guessing peoples' tolerance is much lower when they know it was a man-made event.
posted by ryanrs at 3:04 PM on June 27, 2009


This speculation would be much more exciting if The Geysers hadn't been doing the exact same thing in the same area for, oh, 100 years or so without either Lake or Sonoma County being destroyed by a giant earthquake.

fshgrl: Did you actually watch the NYT video? They talked about the geysers and how they actually caused a lot of earthquakes and this could theoretically make things worse.
posted by delmoi at 3:49 PM on June 27, 2009


They talked about the geysers and how they actually caused a lot of earthquakes and this could theoretically make things worse.
Delmoi:
You are correct of course - but take a look at the map and note the cluster of quakes over the Geysers area. Thousands of micro-quakes and small quakes related to the heaving and burping of the geothermal field resulting in little or no damage over the last thirty or forty years.
Now take a look at the quakes on the lateral fault zones (they run approximately NW:SE). These are the ones (the San Andreas and the Roger's Creek fault zones) which have done damage in the past. The severity and frequency of quakes on these fault zones has neither increased or decreased with activity at the Geysers - the systems are not well coupled.
Now perhaps there have been studies demonstrating that deeper drilling could produce catastrophic effects but evidence to that effect was not presented in the article nor have I seen it elsewhere consequently I think this may be mostly hype.
But to be sure I'll check with the experts as I live in NorCal and am only almost infallible.
posted by speug at 4:41 PM on June 27, 2009


..nor decreased...
posted by speug at 4:42 PM on June 27, 2009


Interestingly, another earthquake was felt last night in Cleburne, TX. This was the sixth in a month for this town near Dallas (not typically thought of as earthquake territory). In this case, natural gas drilling in the area is being investigated as a possible cause.
posted by bwanabetty at 9:07 PM on June 27, 2009


fshgrl: Did you actually watch the NYT video? They talked about the geysers and how they actually caused a lot of earthquakes and this could theoretically make things worse.

They are tiny earthquakes, you don't even feel them.
posted by fshgrl at 6:51 PM on June 28, 2009


Delmoi's (and the NYTs) reaction was interesting to me: there are "your" earthquakes and there are "those earthquakes over there" when you live with them. One holds out for the Great Catastrophe but those are pretty well primed on the "over there" side of things from the perspective of The Geysers.

The Geysers facility is an old PG&E plant dating back to the days when it was the Northern Republic's nearly sole retailer, generator and transmissor. I'm not entirely sure what got PG&E into thermal though a regulatory drive towards renewable energy would not surprise me. When deregulation came, PG&E had to divest itself of its monopoly holdings and sold the Geysers off for a song, reportedly. NCPA and Calpine I think own the whole shooting match out there, Calpine holding the lion's share.

The Geysers are indeed remote and there's not a whole heck of a lot of people to fall down if a big one strikes out in that area. Notice the concentration of seismic activity was pretty well in that bowl there. Of concern are the areas beyond: Sonoma county lies just beyond and while not very population dense, there's enough folks there that A Big One would be something of an issue. This project is far enough removed that that any monkeying with a local fault would be pretty well localized. I would think the bogeyman would be follow-on earthquakes from neighboring faults jarred loose by the activity or some horrible sort of China Syndrome when the massive bedrock's fatal harmonic point is struck in a action comic moment when the cold water hits it.

Steam is about as clean as it comes and still not all butterflies and lillies. Driving through the Geysers is a surrealist industrial experience with pipes large enough for a person to stand in crisscrossing the landscape, looping over the two-lane roadway in a manner recalling Dr. Seuss. These pipes terminate in ugly scars where pads have been ripped into the ground to support shacks and wellheads and equipment and offices. Steam kills both the landscape and occasionally the men working with it and wells go bad over time. As green as it is, its still not something you'd want in your backyard.

I spent a year working in the industry and I'm amazed we ratepayers have two pennies to rub together and the lights are on more than a few times since then. Many of the players back in the cowboy early days ran onto hard times after scraping huge amounts of money out of ratepayers in schemes that were demonstrably crooked. Calpine and NCPA were about as straight-shooter as they came, but I'd consider anyone looking to make money in the power industry as a bandit first and a well-meaning industrialist drilling into the firmament with unheard of intensity secondarily.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:12 PM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


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