The over-hyped fear of earthquakes through geothermal drilling

Alexander Richter Alexander Richter 24 Jun 2009

The New York Times raises - I think - unnecessary fears of earthquakes through a geothermal project in California by AltaRock making reference to a project in Basel.

Actually I wanted to wait for some answer by industry players and associations, but as several other sites seem to pick up this story as well, I just wanted to cover it now.

The article appeared yesterday in New York Times and was labeled “Deep in Bedrock, Clean Energy and Quake Fears”. I could now go on about all the things that were mis-communicated in the Basel case, but the following note by covers it pretty well.

“The New York Times takes a front-page look at how a startup company, AltaRock Energy, is set to start drilling deep into the ground near San Francisco to tap geothermal energy using a nearly identical method that was used several years ago in Switzerland and abandoned after it set off an earthquake. The project in Basel not only set off one earthquake that damaged buildings but also led to “thousands of smaller earthquakes … that continued for months.” AltaRock insists it can operate safely, and its project in California will be the first of what could eventually be dozens of similar efforts in the United States to try to tap into what many think could be a great source for clean energy. But seismologists say there’s no way of really knowing “what will or will not set off a major temblor.”

And one has to agree with the last sentence. There is no actual proof that the earthquake in Basel was actually caused by the geothermal drilling there, which by the way happened within the city, a very populated area. Secondly, the region sees regular earthquakes and the damage reports by individuals to their insurance companies were largely overstated. Some go as far to say it was a nice convenience for some people.

Having said that, there are concerns by people and they have to be taken serious. This applies particularly to regions which see regular earthquakes and people simply don´t want to get the feeling that they might appear more regularly or are being caused artificially.

I assume this is all an issue of public information and perception. Something that the geothermal industry needs to do even more work on and the lobbyism of the wind and solar energy should be a good example.

Another coverage of the topic can be found on Treehugger, which named the article “Huge Geothermal Power Project Could Cause Quakes.” Not a very nice heading for one of the most promising renewable energy technologies in this otherwise exceptional publication.

Source: New York Times,, Treehugger