05 August 2007

It seemed like a good idea at the time

One of the great things about geology is that one can, indeed, learn from the past! Yes, strange but true the remote past can tell us much about the goings on with planet Earth. Unfortunately the more recent past seems to escape some folks... lets flip back to the 1960's when the Cold War was still a chilly and ongoing thing, 'atoms for peace' was still a concept and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was injecting waste into wells deep in the subsurface.

This was one of those 'unplanned learning experiences' in science that really makes one wonder just what was going through the heads of those in charge. The concepts of plate tectonics and such was just coming out as a great idea to sweep away all other ideas and fix things up a bit, but even before that the concept of 'fault lines' being associated with earthquakes was not unknown. Mind you the tools for finding faultlines were still very primative, and one would think that if you get below an igneous rock layer you should, in theory be able to get rid of some fluids down there for long term storage. Semi-reasonable at least. Thus the US Army started to inject lots of liquid into a deep borehole to see it this was, really, a good idea. I mean it was a 'good idea at the time'.

Mother Nature is really quite grand, with all sorts of things ready to be tested out! With a few glass spheres one can deduce the fact that light is composed of many colors. Two rocks of different densities but the same size fall equally fast in a gravity well, with the expedient of dropping them together and watching. And a half-million gallons of water injected deep into rock strata can reactivate fault lines. All so simple! Perform the experiment, get the result! Mind you if you are working on nuclear material at the surface then starting up earthquakes may not be such a great concept.

There are a couple of quick and easy lessons learned from this little experiment by the US Army:

1) Injected liquids in deep rock strata must go someplace.
2) Said liquids are less dense and more viscous than rock.
3) Said liquids are what as known as 'lubricants' to fault lines.
4) Later folks wanting to liquify carbon dioxide for 'carbon sequestration' are idiotic if they do not learn the first 3 facts.

So, lesson learned, right? Everyone knows that if you like to inject lots of fluid below the Earth's surface in a relatively quiescent environment, that the liquid tends to go places and do things and perhaps not just sit there like you wanted it to. Easy lesson from a not so easy experiment. We learned much and may even, one day, if we can find some nice, easy fault lines to play with that we can be absolutely, positively sure that won't destroy a major city or three, get to start mitigating the forces behind earthquakes.

Now, fast forward to the oh-so-wise, environmentally friendly present and I give a major hat-tip to Instapundit for having this article put up:

"The glass vases on the shelf rattled, and there was a loud bang," Catherine Wueest, a teashop owner, recalls. "I thought a truck had crashed into the building."

But the 3.4 magnitude tremor on the evening of Dec. 8 was no ordinary act of nature: It had been accidentally triggered by engineers drilling deep into the Earth's crust to tap its inner heat and thus break new ground — literally — in the world's search for new sources of energy. . . .

In Basel, the first shaft was bored last year by a 190-foot-tall drilling rig towering above nearby apartment buildings. Water was pumped down the injection well in the test phase in December, and as expected, it heated to above 390 F as it seeped through the layers of rock below.

But that's where the water remains for the time being; it caused the rock layers to slip, causing the tremors and rumbles that spooked the townspeople.

Geopower Basel, had forecast some rock slippage. In fact, it said the location on top of a fault line — the upper Rhine trench — was an advantage because it meant the heat was closer to the Earth's surface.
Well, NSS! How is that for a bright idea? Can you guess which parts of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal 'lessons learned' they did not learn?

Yes, all of them! Save for 4, but the idea that this is a grand and good idea for an energy source by injecting lots of water into such a place is purely nuts. Not only do you have high pressure but you have much, much higher temperatures than at the RMA site and a much better known and major fault line. To grossly paraphrase Einstein:
Ignorance is lack of knowledge.

Stupidity is doing the same experiment over and over expecting to get a different result.
Send the geologists back to school at Geopower Basel. Time to study 'injection of fluid into fault lines'. And they might want to test it out where there isn't a population center nearby, first.

'But it seemed a good idea at the time....'

I am convinced that will be the last words of the last survivor of mankind. Just before the 'good idea' gets 'em.

No comments: