Is Disturbing A Sleeping Volcano To Get “Clean” Energy Safe?

Injecting water at a very high pressure into the cracks of a dormant volcano in order to exploit an untapped source of clean energy? Does that sound like a good idea?

That’s exactly what’s going to happen at the Newberry Volcano in eastern Oregon. AltaRock Energy, a Seattle-based company, says it has secured permission from the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to start pumping water into a series of connected cracks about 2 miles below the surface.

Well, the BLM has been involved in some questionable decisions in the past.

The idea of the $44 million project is to break up the rock surrounding the volcano by cracking it apart with high pressure water and the many other substances that go into fracking to make the geothermal heat contained in those rocks easier to access.

But wait, hasn’t fracking been linked with earthquakes in Oklahoma and Ohio recently? And now the BLM has approved fracking a volcano? I’m no scientist, but this sounds like a bad idea.

Yet, according to New Scientist, the BLM gave its permission for the project’s testing phase only after independent studies showed it did not risk triggering earthquakes near the volcano or contaminating groundwater.

Evaluating all possibilities for renewable energy is important, particularly those that are large and well- distributed nationally. Geothermal energy, produced from both conventional hydrothermal and Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS), is certainly one of those options.

What is EGS? Basically we’re talking about hot rocks: the unlimited resource that is the heat beneath the earth’s surface. EGS fractures this hot rock, circulates water through the system, and uses the resulting steam to produce heat and electricity in a conventional turbine. The cycle begins again when the water is injected back into the rock.

In traditional geothermal energy, by contrast, power is produced by drilling into pockets of hot water and steam. The amount of power that can be produced using this system is limited and is dependent on the temperature and size of these pockets.

The potential for EGS is enormous: experts have estimated that 2 percent of the heat below the continental United States could provide 2,500 times the country’s total annual energy use. That’s great, but extracting that heat is another story. However, EGS projects are already up and running in France, Germany, and Australia, and in 2008, the first US demonstration project for EGS was launched in Desert Peak, Nevada.

AltaRock chose to perform its EGS tests beneath the flanks of the Newberry volcano to take advantage of the fact that rocks get hotter with depth at a much faster rate than in non-volcanic areas.

New Scientist reports:

The testing phase should be complete by 2014. If the results are as good as AltaRock hopes, the system could rival the cost-efficiency of fossil fuels, says Susan Petty, the firm’s CEO.

A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007 suggested that EGS resources could supply 10 per cent of the US’s energy needs, mainly because it can be located anywhere where there is hot rock within two miles of the surface.

Geothermal energy sounds like a great idea to help solve our energy challenges and fight global warming, but maybe not fracking a volcano.

What do you think?


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Photo Credit: DonCrain


Daphne T.
Daphne T.5 years ago

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David Menard
David Menard5 years ago

It would be preferable to exploit already active sources of geothermal energy as they do in Iceland.Than to play Russian roulette. by trying to frack a freaking volcano.There are . to many unknowns. You don't go poke a sleeping grizzly with a stick.

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle5 years ago

Geothermal energy has a lot of potential. In Oregon, Washington and Northern California, it is not very deep to the earth's magma. Much of the city of Klamath Falls Oregon is heated geothermally. People just drill their own heat well. The Oregon Institute of Technology is heated geothermally and the only cost to the school is what it takes to maintain the plumbing.

Frans Badenhorst
Frans Badenhorst5 years ago

no - stay away, you play with fire and you WILL get burned.....

Kamryn M.
Kay M5 years ago

i wouldn't do it, but maybe less risky than neuclear power.

John C.
John C.5 years ago

Read more and educate yourselves on the project and the science.

Niall Leighton
Niall Leighton5 years ago

Sorry, long on speculation, long on possibly unfair comparisons (does this scheme use lubricant the way fracking does, because I can't find reference elsewhere to it doing so: indeed the reference I found says that it's *not* fracking), short on science.

I want a lot more detail before I come down on one side or the other. Will it cause earth tremors? If so, big deal. You get earth tremors around volcanoes. Will it "wake" the volcano? Not given my understanding of the science behind volcanoes.

My only substantive concern at this point, although more research is needed, is the possible consequence of adding heat to the atmosphere if we go down this route on a large scale.

I want to know if this does use lubricants the way fracking does. I want to hear from climate scientists about waste heat. I want to hear from geologists about the likelihood of increased tectonic activity. Until then, I'm not bothered what the Care2 pundits have to say.

Carol R.
Carol Reom5 years ago

I'm all for using the heat and steam BUT not for the fracking part. Chemical liquids flow and underground and you have no control over them. Iceland has been using thermo energy for generations without poisoning their land and I'm sure there are safe ways to exploit it. We just have to be careful how you do it and not get some eager beavers who will try anything to make money and jump in and out of it as fast as possible before we know the full ramifications of the project.

Laurie Greenberg
Laurie Greenberg5 years ago

Holy Magma, Batman! I think they're going to need our volcano-fixing skills when they find out what a colassally BAD idea THIS one was! To the Batmobile!

Hartson Doak
Hartson Doak5 years ago

Using a closed system to extract the heat is great. But, to inject a lubricant into cracks under a volcano is inviting earthquakes.