The phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” was made popular by former President Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville during Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush, and referred to the notion that Clinton was a better choice because Bush had not adequately addressed the economy, which had recently undergone a recession.
Currently, everyone in Washington, D.C., and across the nation is gearing up for the 2012 election cycle. It’s a green energy world we currently live and work in, and regardless of the merits of coal, uranium, geothermal, gas shales – and the list goes on – what we have learned over the years, and notably over the past few years, is that environmental concerns can determine, more often than not, whether our profession and industry is successful or not.
On a large scale, one simply has to refer back to the Deepwater Horizon spill and aftermath, whose repercussions continue to adversely impact the industry, the environment and the economy.
However, it does not take a large spill to make the point that we live in an environmentally conscious world.
In the pursuit of energy, the unconventional and alternative energy resources arena is especially susceptible to what I commonly refer to as environmental drivers.
You may recall a case of enhanced geothermal development in Switzerland in December 2009. Enhanced geothermal essentially relies on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to fracture bedrock and then circulates water through the cracks to produce steam, which in turn is utilized to produce electricity. However, by its very nature, fracking can create earthquakes, albeit mostly of small magnitude.
In 2010, litigation was brought against a geologist involved with an enhanced geothermal project for inducing some 30 earthquakes – the largest a magnitude 3.4 – through drilling and injecting pressurized water into rocks five kilometers below the surface. Damage to buildings in the region was estimated at $9 million.
Although acquitted, the enhanced geothermal project was terminated. The Swiss case had significant ramifications, and sent a shot over the bow to those in favor of enhanced geothermal, previously considered a clean and virtually limitless energy source.
In the United States, the Department of Energy had provided more than $100 million for enhanced geothermal. One of the big projects was the AltaRock Energy project in my large backyard called The Geysers, about 160 kilometers north of San Francisco.
The Geysers comprise the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, and supply one-fifth of the renewable energy produced in California.
The AltaRock project is – in hindsight, was – President Obama’s first major test to advance geothermal energy generation. The Geysers’ geothermal fields are lined with active faults, and minor earthquakes have been induced by the geothermal operations there.
In December 2009, immediately following the shutdown of the project in Switzerland, AltaRock Energy removed its drill rig and informed the government that the project would be abandoned.
The liabilities associated with the subsurface fracturing of rock present a significant setback in our search for renewable energy – thus the efforts for more renewable energy obviously will be hampered and derailed with these legal setbacks.
Geothermal isn’t the only form of energy under attack. Another recent case centers on whether drilling a natural gas well caused four small earthquakes – none above magnitude 2.8 – in the vicinity of Cleburne, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth. It did not help that one of the earthquakes occurred during the meeting of the city council while holding an emergency session to discuss this very topic.
The alleged culprit is either fracking or reinjecting wastewater back into a depleted well, which is what one study found.
What happened in Texas did not stay in Texas, as similar episodes are found in Pennsylvania, New York and other parts of the Northeast, as well as California. Fracking was deemed exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but renewed interest on the impact of fracking on water quality is being re-evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency and at the state level as well.
Following the Deepwater Horizon incident, the “Ragin’ Cajun” was expounding:
“And it just looks like he’s not involved in this! Man, you have got to get down here and take control of this! ... Put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving! We’re about to die down here!”
Environmental concerns drive energy policy, and policy drives the conventional, unconventional and alternative energy resources, regardless of the merits. How successful we geoscientists will be in developing a national energy strategy that is reasonable and sound depends on how well we communicate with the public, policy makers and the environmental community at large.
Thus, we have a fundamental decision before us, and in the words of Carville, “Change versus more of the same.”